Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Star Trek

I would argue that science-fiction TV shows, more than any other type of show, are built to take advantage of the medium's innate ability to explore different genres within the same basic framework week after week.  A bit of hand-waving about technology or primitive civilizations and you've got a noir or a western or a screwball comedy or whatever else the writers want to do this week.  There are hundreds of episodes of Star Trek TV shows and they go down all sorts of weird rabbit holes.  This isn't always a good thing - the Star Trek writers, at least the ones of the modern, post-TNG era, have something of an infamous reputation as having a tin ear for comedy.  But it does at least mean that, week after week, you can't really predict what you're going to get from any of these shows.

The television business demands that a sizable audience return again and again to watch the adventures of its characters, and within a time frame that means that the previous installment is still very much fresh in their minds when they are consuming the current one.  Do the same thing too often and the audience gets bored (even Law and Order has to throw crazy curveballs into its cases on a semi-regular basis).  A normal film series, on the other hand, does not work that way.  By the time a new film hits the theaters the last one is 2, 3, maybe even more years old.  The last one is a distant memory, and the series sinks or swims entirely within a "what have you done for me lately" framework.  This is changing somewhat with planned-out series like The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter movies, but for the most part film series are still mostly serendipitous - if the first one makes a big profit, then someone will want to make a 2nd, and if that does well a 3rd will be commissioned, and so on.  That's not the way TV works - even a show that gets a small pickup is contracted to produce several episodes.

More and more, TV shows are being consumed by people in the way that I'm consuming this film series, at whatever pace they decide.  Marathon an entire season of Breaking Bad on Netflix over the course of a weekend, that's a normal way of doing business nowadays.  Marathoning a traditional film series is a different animal entirely.  Formula is baked into the medium of television, so writers work very hard to subvert it as much as possible.  Film series mostly happen by accident, so formula is almost demanded by the marketplace.  Stray too far and, if the film tanks, you've killed the golden goose.

All of this is a long way of getting to the point that, having watched these 11 Star Trek movies in reasonably rapid succession, the formula really stands out in sharp relief in a way that it might not if you just dip in and out of a few of these movies every so often.  There is our crew.  The film introduces a Bad Guy.  That Bad Guy represents an existential threat to A) our heroes or B) the Earth or C) some rinky-dink solar system that we will care about because there are innocent people living there.  The crew fights the Bad Guy.  He (or she) gets the best of them at first.  They overcome whatever problem led to their early defeat, and they triumph over the Bad Guy.  That's the formula for basically every film in the series (with the likely exception of Star Trek IV, an oddball in just about every way.)  Each movie zigs or zags here or there, but most of them play these beats out in one way or another.  They are not like the various shows, which explore a lot of very different ideas and genres.  These are basically all action movies, with questions of cosmic import being, at best, explored at the very edges of the margins of the script.  A bad guy is met.  That bad guy is overcome.  The crew lives to fight another day.

The worst thing I can say about this long-awaited reboot of Star Trek is that it plays right into this formula, just like every other film before it, even though it is ostensibly a complete rebuilding of this series from the ground up, rather than a vehicle for a hoary old cast to take a big budget victory lap.  The second-worst thing I can say about it is that its Bad Guy (Nero, played by Eric Bana, an actor who has really struggled to find his proper niche in the Hollywood ecosystem) is a complete cipher who is set adrift by the screenplay and whose actor never finds anything interesting to do with him.  And the third-worst thing (I promise this will be the last) is that the meat of its plot, which takes up almost the entire back half of the film, involves a race to stop this Bad Guy that is not compelling in the slightest, and that wastes a lot of time with action scenes that go nowhere (the "Scotty gets stuck in a tube of liquid" scene is perhaps the most egregious example of introducing tension through obvious script finagling rather than through the organic motions of the plot).

But, despite all of this, the film manages to rise above these failings and be almost entirely successful, for two main reasons.  One is that the main 7 of the crew are extremely well cast (with, in my opinion, one major exception that I will get to) and each of them is given at least something interesting to do, even if it's just Anton Yelchin having a ton of fun with his interpretation of Walter Koenig's weird "Russian" accent.  And two is that JJ Abrams obviously completely believes in this project, and his love for the atomic material that makes up the Star Trek mythos is palpable.  I know that not every Star Trek fan is over-the-moon for this new version of the series (and I also know that some fans absolutely love it) but for me, someone who is at best a dabbler in this universe, Abrams' enthusiasm for the film is palpable, and impossible to resist.

In terms of the cast, I'll start with Chris Pine, naturally.  Ultimately, his job is mostly not that difficult in my opinion.  Be Kirk, but don't be Shatner.  I have perhaps beaten to death my anti-Shatner crusade, but it finally finds its full flowering here - Pine is fantastic, and his Kirk is, in my mind, instantly the definitive version.  (Although I accept that it's hard for me to gauge how good Pine truly is, given my bias).  He's charming and charismatic, and actually makes sense as the lead of a big-budget franchise.

The big problem in the cast, to my mind, is Zachary Quinto.  Given what an unloved show "Heroes" turned out to be, Sylar (the sociopathic killer character that he kept playing throughout the run of the series, through increasingly implausible plot mechanics, given that he should rightly have died at the end of the first season) is right at the surface of this film at all times when Quinto is onscreen - the unemotional thing that Spock does melds too easily with Sylar's sociopathy.  Admittedly, Quinto had a very difficult task here, trying to follow in the footsteps of one of the all-time great TV performances in Leonard Nimoy's Spock.  I'm not sure that anyone could have done Spock justice, and I don't think Quinto is terrible in the movie.  He simply never finds the right rhythms, so when he has his big emotional outburst that leads into the 3rd act, it feels less like a big dramatic moment than a natural extension of his entire performance up to that point.  I'm hopeful that Quinto will find the performance going forward, but he's not there yet in this movie.

Everyone else is great.  Karl Urban is nicely cantankerous, and his American accent picks a good resting point near DeForest Kelley's.  Zoe Saldana's Uhura is given significantly more to do here than Nichelle Nichols ever was in any of that cast's films, and she is up to the challenge of turning Uhura into a real character (I don't love the romance plot, not because her and Spock don't make sense but because it seems a little trite to insist on coupling up your one major female character, but so be it).  John Cho gets his one spotlight sword fighting scene, and seems to be having a good deal of fun, even when he's just pushing buttons on a console.  Simon Pegg actually has something resembling a Scottish accent (as opposed to James Doohan's bizarre drunken Pakistani), and the comic relief nature of the character in his hands means that he's in on the joke, rather than being the butt of the joke like Doohan too often was made to be.  And Anton Yelchin, although he doesn't really have much to do, sells the phrase "Captain Cork" like no one's business.

So it's a good start for this series, although not a perfect one.  At the very least, I can say that I am extremely interested in seeing where these characters go next, something we will find out in a few short months.

(I'm going to skip the plot recap, because I find the plot both sort of uninteresting and too complicated for its own good.  Nero comes back through time, fucks up the timeline, and eventually Kirk and crew have to stop him from wreaking havoc on Earth.)

Bullet pointin':

George Kirk's family, including his pregnant wife, is on board the Kelvin with him, meaning that there are presumably other families on the ship.  The idea of families aboard Starfleet ships is pretty unclear to me.  They were obviously a part of the complement of the Enterprise-D, but Picard and Kirk have both expressed regrets during this film series about not being able to have families.  I guess you could argue that that's something unique to the Captain, that regulations state they cannot have a family aboard ship with them, but that doesn't really follow logically - why would the first officer (which George Kirk is) have a completely different set of rules?

The plot is too convoluted by half, but I give the writers a ton of credit for figuring out a way to both reboot the series and not negate 4 decades worth of continuity.  Bringing Spock into the plot was a good idea - Nimoy deserved to do a victory lap, and old Spock giving the plot his blessing helps to anchor this film as a part of the Star Trek universe, rather than just a cash-in by a Paramount that was eager to start making money from this property again.  Which they were, but still.

Why is there an enormous gorge in the middle of Iowa?

When we get our first glimpse of Vulcan, Abrams works Vasquez rocks into the background.  Later, when Vulcan comes into play as the emotional catalyst for Spock's journey, it turns out that the entire planet is basically made up of Vasquez rocks.

Ben Cross looks weirdly like Mark Lenard.  He's well cast simply for that fact.

I like the interplay between Kirk and Uhura quite a bit.  She has a pretty barely-disguised disdain for the guy, which is an interesting character beat to insert into this new version.

The less said about Tyler Perry's awful cameo, the better.  I realize that every black person loves Star Trek, that's science, but couldn't we have gotten someone better than him to play this role?

This movie had a very long pre-production history, and for a long time it was basically thought of as the "Kirk and Spock at the Academy" movie (back when Matt Damon was still the rumored name of choice to play Kirk).  It's a little disappointing just how little of their Academy career is actually covered here.  We jump pretty quickly from Kirk as cocky Iowa farm boy to the cadets on their first mission on the Enterprise.  And Spock and Kirk are never really peers, their relationship maintains a power imbalance throughout.  I am absolutely of the opinion that this movie would have benefited with more time spent on the Kirk/Spock relationship at the academy, and less goddamned Nero.  But no one asked me to make the film, so what are you gonna do?

Poor Engineer Olson.  Abrams' first Star Trek red shirt, sucked into the business end of Nero's drill.

The marooning of Kirk on Delta Vega is a transparent attempt to inject action back into the film, and also sets up a couple of really dumb coincidences, with Kirk meeting Old Spock and also Scotty on this barren, frozen rock.  This part of the script really could have used another pass, to come up with some logical reason for why these things happen.

The Federation outpost on Delta Vega must be the dingiest place that Nimoy's Spock has ever set foot in.  It looks like the setting for an Antarctic zombie movie.

The engineering deck of the Enterprise is significantly more mechanical than I can ever remember it being.  It's all pipes and valves.  I'm so used to the TNG's design of Engineering now, the glowing stack of pancakes surrounded by a bunch of computer screens.  At least with this version of Engineering, it makes sense that the ship is constantly venting gas all over the place whenever it gets hit.

This movie has great sound design.  The phaser battle when Kirk and Spock first beam aboard Nero's ship gets almost all of its power from the sound.

Nero's motives get really murky in the 3rd act.  I can understand his vendetta against Spock and the Vulcans, I guess, but why does he turn his fury on Earth?  And how does he know (and why does he care) that he killed Kirk's father?

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