7.15.2013

Captain's Blog pt. 42: Star Trek (2009)

The reboot of Star Trek hoovered up nearly $300m in domestic box office receipts, giving the franchise not just the financial shot in the arm it needed but a snazzy new look, conceptualization, cast, and timeline.


Outside of the cast (who all received justifiably good reviews for their turns in the classic roles associated with the original cast) the four individuals responsible for its massive success were:

 

Like most Trekkers, I was ambivalent about this one when it came out in the theaters. I was bitterly disappointed with Nemesis and though I came to like Enterprise after a second look, I was beginning to wonder if the heyday of Trek had passed. News of a hip new reboot didn't immediately excite me. Would this be a Lost in Space or a Batman Begins? And looking at the individuals involved, I had further pause... Fringe and Lost both started strong and then crashed and burned so spectacularly (in my damn opinion) that I worried we'd get a lot of sizzle and not much steak. 

Yet when I left the theater with the strands of Michael Giacchino's orchestration of the original Alexander Courage theme, I was more than pleasantly surprised, I was whistling and quite happy. They pulled it off - a film that fit into (and towered above) the blockbusters of the present while providing enough links to Trek's illustrious past. 

Not everyone agrees. But in addition to the box office windfall, it scored pretty well with most fans and critics. So what was it that they did in this movie that the NextGen movies never did? Let's have a look.

As mentioned here "Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman devised an unbreakable defense against any claims of canonical heresy. The entire movie exists in an alternate universe to every other moment of Star Trek you've seen before. And try as you might to find something to gripe about, the (correct) response is: sorry, new timeline. " 

That is certainly a feather in the film's cap. It can reference all previous Trek at will but veer off-continuity/ expectation as needed. Visually, it's as stunning as any of the previous Trek films, if not moreso, taking full advantage of the considerable advances in fx/ re-positioning Starfleet-tech in a more Star-Wars-ian mode. Which, on the face of it, might be heresy, but after three disappointing Wars prequels (and several disappointing Trek sequels, proper) all I can say is that it felt like the right move at the time, and still feels fine, looking back.

 
 

Which is not say I was happy with every alteration. Changing the Engineering section into a large brewery is, I suppose, somewhat visually interesting but conceptually stupid. (I'm unsure what role all this water plays in the propulsion of the ship, for one.) But it fits the general Star-Wars-ification of the reboot: we are no longer all that concerned with matter/ antimatter and warp coils. It's just "punch it" and wham, hyperspace.


Ditto for the fixed positions of things like the Romulan Neutral Zone, where Vulcan is, the distance between the shuttle-bay and the bridge, etc. Are any of these things dealbreakers, though? Different timeline/ different universe. I don't mean to be flippant, but I do admire the utility of this simple storytelling decision. It frees the franchise up to boldly go where it wants to go, which is a long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

And sure, as mentioned in the Honest Trailer mash-up of the film (which is quite amusing and worth the four minutes of your time) the bridge seems to have been turned into a heavily-armed Apple store:


And the lens flare has been well-covered. But all in all, I think the changes to the bridge design work pretty well.

The viewscreen doubles as a window out into space as well as a screen on which to receive incoming transmissions and review star charts, etc.
And apparently Starfleet builds its ships on the ground now? Hey, roll with it. Plus, this change allows Kirk to stop and gaze off into the distance, at his destiny literally being constructed.
As noted pretty well in the Red Letter Media review of the film (from which some of the above points are drawn, though damn it, I had many of the same observations, what am I supposed to do? Pretend I didn't? I say thee nay.) the reboot brand-repositions Trek in two ways: as an action film, and as Science Fantasy (read: Star Wars) rather than Science Fiction.

Let's start with the second observation, there. So many things happen in this film that make zero sense scientifically. From the supernova that inexplicably threatens the entire galaxy to Nero's ideas re: time travel to the behavior of black holes to the red matter to stuff like this:

I mean, where is Spock where he sees this? Vulcan doesn't have a moon. Hoth? A nearby ice planet? Where conveniently Old Spock and Scotty, who just happens to have invented the beaming-effect that gets Kirk back on the Enterprise, are located? Gotta' be the will of The Force.
But all of that is part of the switch from Science Fiction to Science Fantasy, from Trek to Star Wars.

"A moon-sized space station and superweapon..."
"capable of destroying planets with a single beam of destructive energy."
 
 
Is there any wonder Abrams is now revitalizing Star Wars for its new owners at Disney?
Cute alien sidekick? Check.
I could go on, but you get my drift.
Now, in order to judge the film's merits as an action film, have a look at this site and review common criteria for the genre. On one hand, you could say "This is a space adventure movie that exploits its Trek backdrop as mere scenery," and I couldn't really disagree. That is what it does. But does it do it well? i.e. if that's the kind of Trek we're going to get, is it a successful action movie, at any rate? Let's review the tropes/ criteria listed at that site and see how Star Trek sizes up.

1) Does it have an athlete-turned-actor?

None that I'm aware of, but it does have a de-Medea-ified Tyler Perry. Does that count?


2) Does anyone cling to the outside of a fast-moving vehicle?

Not really, but one can see elements of this in the car chase/ slow-motion leap from the driver's seat / crash-landing-of-the-escape-pod.

3) Does someone get hit in the crotch?

You know, I honestly can't remember. But probably. There is the whole "I've got your gun" trick, which is quite different, but seems rather action-movie-y.

4) Is there "verbal fellatio" between the male protagonists, with dialogue telling us how bad-ass the main character is?

Not quite, but Pike rattles off a list of Kirk's attributes in the aftermath of the bar fight.

5) Does the ending feature an ambulance, a blanket, or a towel?

This cracked me up. I guess Star Trek doesn't, but it really is remarkable how prevalent this is in action movies, isn't it?

6) Did the penultimate scene take place in a factory/ warehouse/ castle?

I count Nero's ship here, so very much, yes. (Also, good point on "penultimate," as usually there's a final-scene/wrap-up that takes place after the factory/ warehouse/ castle in action movies. It really is remarkable how by-the-numbers most crap is.)

7) Are there giant explosions? (Buildings/ vehicles/ cars)

To quote Mr. Sulu, "Oh my, yes."

8) Heavy artillery? (Some mega-weapon?)


9) Is there some macho mode of transportation? (Helicopter/ race-car, etc.)

One could argue the Enterprise itself is the most macho transportation of all, but for our purposes here, I'll nominate the skyfall-business approaching the mining platform. (Which, while we're here, let me just say: this is a fantastic action set piece.)

And more than a little reminiscent of the Sarlaac Pit sequence in Jedi, to boot.

10) Does the main character sport a facial accessory? (Bandana/ mask/ sunglasses/ eyepatch, etc.)


11) Are there manly embraces? (Fist pound/ hand grasp/ high five, etc.)

Kirk gives some very forceful back and shoulder slaps to McCoy and Spock.

12) Shoot-outs and sword-fights?

Of course.

13) Slow-motion finishing moves/ deaths? (Was time altered to accentuate awesomeness?)

And how.

14) Stupid authoritative figure?

Not really (Pike comes off as one of the best characters in the film, as does the original captain of the Kelvin/ most higher-ups we see.) But we do have Kirk's nemesis, Cupcake, who seems to have joined Starfleet not to explore strange new worlds but so that he can stick a gun in people's faces. (As Mr. Plinkett notes.)

15) Torture sequence? (Electrocution, appendage breaking, water boarding, etc.)

Absolutely!

16) Vigilante justice? (Does someone break the law/ the rules/ procedure to scale the heights of Mt. Bad-Ass?)

Again, absolutely. And so on and so on. This is by no means an exhaustive list of action movie tropes, but I hope you'll agree that when viewed through this lens, Star Trek makes an effort to check off an awful lot of these boxes.

On top of all the above, the reboot had to successful re-introduce the characters/ core concepts without alienating new viewers. Here, I think it had a pretty easy job. Unless it went crazy and fundamentally altered them to fit current trends (thus instantly dating it) it chose instead to focus on the most recognizable aspects of the characters (Kirk - womanizer/ impulsive / fights; Spock - logical / torn-between-two-worlds; Chekov - adorably-Russian; Sulu - that one episode with the sword;  Uhura - languages, hot; Scotty - Scottish, likes engines; Bones - cranky, "He's Dead, Jim," "Are you out of your Vulcan mind?" etc.) as well as Trek itself (space, transporter, warp speed, those green chicks, Vulcans, etc.) and turn the volume up on all of them.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

And so on down the line. It still managed to provide a few twists on the classic dynamics, though, re-positioning the "holy trinity" of characters from where it had always been (Kirk, Spock, McCoy) to Kirk, Spock, and Uhura.

 
 
And speaking of Spock...
 

What?? No Pon Farr? Nope. 

I wonder why this was done. Was it to mitigate perceived (probably justly) homophobia on the audience's part? i.e. Quinto is an out-and-fabulous actor. Was it to cash in on Zoe Saldana's sex-kitten-ness? Was it neither of these reasons and just a fun thing to throw in there, nice new twist on the source material? I don't know. For me, though, whatever their behind-the-scenes decision-making, it works. Obviously (given the planet's decimation) Vulcan is going to be treated very differently in this iteration of Trek. And here's Nimoy, to help us old Trekkers over the hump, no pun intended.

 
I didn't know he was going to be in this, so this was a fun twist for me, in the theater.

Long story short: everyone in the new cast does a great job, but special praise to Zachary Quinto's Spock. I've seen this reboot a dozen times or so, and I'm still picking up on little things he brings to the screen. (Watching him and Nimoy as twin Spocks interacting is just great, as well.)

 
 
I'm not sure how Winona Ryder ended up in things, either. But hey!

One quick grumble: Why do people cast in iconic roles get so much latitude to do other stuff these days? Isn't it enough to be James Kirk and James Bond etc. for a few years? Can't you just suck it up and crank out a couple of movies in relatively short time rather than make us wait five years between films while you're off doing vanity projects? If I was in charge of Tinseltown, I'd lay down the law: if you're cast as an iconic character, you don't get to do five other movies in between sequels.

Now, as for Crazy Nero...

Eric Bana is great, undoubtedly. But here we have another Trek villain played by a great actor (like Thomas Hardy in Nemesis or F. Murray Abraham in Insurrection) who isn't very well-served by the script. Nero's characterization is pretty simplistic, and the logic of his plans unravels quickly upon examination.

Is it fatally distracting? Nah. But they probably could have tightened him up some.

Or: made any aspect of his plan/ vengeance make sense.
And for some reason, he starts referring to Spock as "Spokgkggh" at end of film.

His 2nd in command is pretty cool, though. Which brings us to another problem with Nero: no one on his ship has any second thoughts about their obviously-insane leader? In a way, it's cool that we're not given the "Should we really be doing this?" dialogue, followed by the "You dare defy me??" sort of BS; I mean, we've seen that many, many times and probably don't need to again. But doesn't it strain credulity just a tad that no one questions the temporal insanity, poor planning, and pointless short-sightedness of Nero's plan?

But it says something about this movie that even with the main villain essentially making no sense, it's still pretty damn enjoyable. Brick Tamland would be happy with at least one of the kill scenes.

CODA

It would seem that the Abrams era, after only two movies and umpteen hundreds of millions, is over. When he came on board, it was with the understanding that this wouldn't just be a cinematic standalone but only one peak in a rebooted mountain range, from movies, tv specials, comics, books, etc. Alas, the ownership arrangement between CBS and Paramount proved unyielding to such an approach, and despite some relatively-good efforts on IDW's part, this across-the-board wave of interconnected rebooting did not materialize. Disney was able to scoop Abrams up by promising him what CBS/ Paramount couldn't deliver. (Not that Abrams was all that difficult a catch, I imagine, as, again, Star Trek feels a lot like an audition reel for the director's chair of the new Star Wars.)

One wonders if the next Trek will capitalize on what's been built for them or falter. Still, we can be happy with the two films we got under their stewardship; whether you're a new fan or old, there's plenty of delight to be found here and in Into Darkness.

11 comments:

  1. "One quick grumble: Why do people cast in iconic roles get so much latitude to do other stuff these days? Isn't it enough to be James Kirk and James Bond etc. for a few years? Can't you just suck it up and crank out a couple of movies in relatively short time rather than make us wait five years between films while you're off doing vanity projects? If I was in charge of Tinseltown, I'd lay down the law: if you're cast as an iconic character, you don't get to do five other movies in between sequels."

    I almost feel like it's the other way around. There are too many years between installments of these big series, and the actors finding other gigs in between is a symptom of that.

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    1. I'm not making any sense in the above post. I guess I'm asking whether the big gap between films is down to the actors' schedules or to all the postproduction effects or to Abrams' schedule of overhauling every iconic sci-fi series.

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    2. It's probably a bit of both. Actors are more sensitive about being typecast, perhaps (leading to Daniel Craig getting to do a dozen movies between Bonds, ditto for Pine/ Saldana/ Urban/ Pegg/ Quinto) and directors/ producers have more going on... I dunno. It's probably better for the franchise as a whole, I grant you, keep the audience wanting more, etc. I just miss the every-two-year heyday of franchises from the 80s.

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    3. The Daniel Craig thing is a special case where the rights to Bond were in a horrible legal mess for years, but I wholeheartedly agree with your greater sentiment.

      I'm pretty sure the gap between Abrams Trek films is entirely the fault of American Horror Story.

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  2. I'd count the Vette that young Kirk trashes as the macho vehicle. Which reminds me, I should write a scifi tale that has the protagonist absconding with a steam powered automobile (http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aacarssteama.htm) while bellowing "Jack Hall" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Hall_%28song%29).

    I can't argue with any of this analysis. I dug the movie when it arrived, but my enthusiasm for Abrams' Trek has waned. As you point out, it's been Star Wars-ified, and unsurprisingly, given that Abrams was an unqualified fan of that franchise, unlike he was with Trek. I can't knock him or his Trek films; they're were out-and-out successes, both at the box office and with (most) critics.

    My biggest head-scratcher was why Classic Spock had so much of the Red Matter, given that such a small amount could destroy a planet. I mean, what were his plans for it? Clearing the Andromeda Galaxy out of the way for a freeway?

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    1. Good point! And why not just beam the effing thing over instead of running up to the edge of the supernova (which, again, threatens THE ENTIRE GALAXY (thunder and lightning... IN SPACE!) and lobbing it in like a molotov cocktail?

      Ah well. The Force. Close your eyes and think of Skywalker...

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  3. There are things in this movie that are daffy, silly, or just plain bad, but the bottom line for me is that I find it to be entertaining as hell. I only wish these guys were getting together and making a movie every year.

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  4. By the way, the jury inside my head has returned a verdict on the "Tyle Perry as athlete stand-in" issue.

    It allows it.

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    1. ha! I don't remember this. I was just rereading this one and thought I should have added a "Nope" as a caption to that picture. But I'll defer to the ruling of the Burnette Commission.

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    2. A few years on from all of this, and I have to admit that I'd have been perfectly fine with Perry coming back for another movie. I think the guy is a pretty solid actor; he was very good in "Gone Girl." No reason he couldn't be good in a "Star Trek" movie, too.

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    3. Yeah I like Perry as Kirk, too. The casting for the Kelvin Treks has been a-okay. We'll see what I make of "Beyond" when I get there!

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