Monday, May 4, 2009

On Trek

So, I have seen the new Star Trek, and here’s my (spoiler-free, I hope) review/analysis. I was one of the lucky ones to win passes to last Thursday’s Ain’t It Cool screening in downtown Chicago. The short version is that I found the movie entertaining and satisfying enough on initial viewing, but rather empty the more I thought about it. My reasoning for this, I came to believe, was because this newest iteration, by itself, cannot possibly sustain the weight of such a monumental franchise—no matter the strength of the story (functional, but utilitarian and a little uninspired) or the skills and chemistry of the cast (quite impressive and promising).

It is not only a matter of my lacking a connection to this new pastiche of a film (they are, after all, not the actors nor even quite the exact same characters I grew up loving); in the end, this film can only be judged according to the (new) franchise it does . . . or does not . . . spawn. If a whole new world is generated, if new storylines and themes that reach across multiple films are constructed, if truly interesting and original (by cinematic standards) philosophical concepts are unpacked, with the depth that only the narrative canvas of a true franchise can provide, if . . .—then this first initial film may yet be a considered a classic. But it could just as likely not be.

The question I have to Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman & Co.—is everyone here, currently basking in the glory of one event film achievement (itself possibly short-lived, depending upon next weekend’s box office), really in it for the long haul? And in that question, I do not just mean whether or not Paramount will milk this franchise for 5 or 6 more cookie-cutter summer popcorn flicks—that seems a given, though probably only as long as production costs are kept down and the base isn’t completely alienated. What I am asking about is whether or not the filmmakers behind this newest version are committed to telling a story whose multiple plot threads and themes will be unpacked across an entire franchise, which will in turn give this first film the depth it currently lacks.

Wrath of Khan is not only a great science-fiction film on its own, and not only important because it remains the greatest Trek movie and the one that saved the franchise after The Motion Picture. It’s particularly powerful because its sets in motion stories and themes that take two, three or even four sequels to address. One of my favorite moments in Star Trek VI (nine years later), for instance, is when Kirk finally comes to peace with the death of his son from III, who was himself first introduced in II—a plot line which gives Kirk in VI (and even frankly, in the hated V) much added emotional significance. “Other men have families, Bones," he says in The Final Frontier (1989), ". . . not us.”

There are moments in the new Trek, to be sure, which reference other films and episodes from the franchise—but they never seem to rise above homage and in-jokes (The Kobayashi Maru; the “I’m giving you all she’s got, Captain”), which are superficially, momentarily, satisfying, but which are fundamentally different from building any new narrative and thematic arches which can be sustained beyond itself. Yes, you’ve watched the whole franchise which before, but can you now create your own?

In short, this new film by itself is not enough—and the real work, the real challenge, for the cast and crew (pun intended) of Star Trek has yet to begin. Will this be a start of another Five-Year Mission, or the last spectacular tribute to a journey now long since passed? It may seem unfair to compare one isolated film to a whole multi-media, multi-textual, decades-long franchise, but that is the challenging paradox—the risk and the reward—that any film version of Star Trek (or other reboot) takes on today. And to not take that challenge seriously, to think that one can just start over with its own ideas, is to be doomed to fail.

There are more specific reasons to say that the new Star Trek is not enough—for one, there is no way around the fact that this is just not a very clever story (interesting, perhaps, but by default as it charts a chapter in Trek hitherto largely unrepresented), nor does it contain a single particularly provocative idea, and being the long philosophically-oriented Star Trek, this is not a matter to take lightly. The story, as advertised (and feared), is a fairly lazy attempt to retell the original stories without being bound to anything that happened before. I am not one of those Trekkies who demands a strict adherence to canon (a lot of obscure canon violations--like how many levels there are on the Enterprise--I probably wouldn't even notice if they sat on my face), but the writers could have challenged themselves a little bit to be creative.

There was no reason this film, as with the franchise-tinkering of Khan, couldn’t have been told in such a way that would fit within the gaps of the original chronology, and thus been mutually gratifying. If anything, the bulk of the time-travel plot is not only uncreative but a huge waste of running time, as it detracts from what is ultimately this newest film's most important function--building familiarity and comfort with the new cast. Having Nimoy back is important for diegetic and for meta-textual reasons (and was by far my favorite part of the film), but this elaborate of a plot was not necessary to accomplish that.

And there are other serious problems with the plot beyond the laziness of time-travel—in particular, the convenient placement and meeting of not two, but three, separate important characters on the same random ice planet is so logically impossible to believe that it not only strains credibility, but just about ruined the entire film for me. It’s almost like the writers had a beginning and an ending to the story, but not a middle to bridge the gap, and took the laziest possible route to get from point A to point B.

And JJ Abrams’s continuously nasty tendency, carried over from the dreadful MI:III (2006), to shoot a big-screen film like it’s a television show, with close-ups and shaky-cam cinema-verite, is not just visually irritating, and makes the movie feel like Blair Witch in Space (seriously, Hollywood—that style DOES NOT make a film look more “realistic.” Please stop!). It’s also, more frustratingly, a waste of the beautiful sets and spectacular visual canvas that lies wasted in the background, struggling to break through JJ’s claustrophobic frame, which might work for a tense, intimate drama like Das Boot, but not for a sci-fi, action-adventure epic on this scale (although there is not a particularly memorable action sequence in the entire film anyway).

So, why did I enjoy the film experience initially overall? From the standpoint of a summer blockbuster, the film carefully and successfully balances action, drama, humor and suspense, which can, under certain circumstances, also be a bit of a backhanded compliment by coming dangerously close to be code-word for “entertainingly generic,” which is also probably partly why the film felt a little hollow to me. However, the film’s pacing, as well as its clear knowledge and affection for Trek, gives the film a sense of depth that sets it apart from other standard Hollywood fare of this kind.

Most importantly, the cast without exception is excellent. Chris Pine’s performance is hard to describe, but he absolutely nails the good-humored arrogance of Kirk, without ever once feeling like warmed-over Shatner. He may quite honestly prove, in time, to be the best Star Trek captain ever—the playful command and confidence without the ham. All performed admirably, Uhura and Chekov have been interestingly reimagined as characters, while Scotty manages to walk a tightrope as essentially comic relief without being an excessive distraction—Sulu’s role, meanwhile, remains a little less defined still. Karl Urban's version of McCoy is pitch perfect, though the character himself feels under-used.

Zachary Quinto’s Spock, too, was surprisingly convincing. The first clip I saw of him as Spock originally troubled me, as his voice seems to lack Nimoy’s pacing and gravitas, and I feared he was cast solely on his uncanny appearance. However, I was wrong: Quinto’s an admirable Spock. Unlike Pine, though, he’s more clearly trying to emulate the performance, and affect, of Nimoy—which may be an impossible task for any actor, given the perfect storm of actor and character which Nimoy/Spock is.

And of course Nimoy’s return here is deeply gratifying, and makes the whole film worth it—though I must say that his performance is “most curious” in the new Trek. Namely, Nimoy’s playing it way more laid back than he ever did before—in his one scene with Quinto, his voice and tone really do sound very un-Spock at times, almost like Nimoy as actor offering casual elderly advice to his successor. It will be very interesting to see what, if anything, they do with the elder Spock in the sequel, as his character’s arc does not end where I thought it would--his odd sense of placelessness at the film's conclusion feels strangely perfect, but also tantalizing mysterious in its narrative possibilities.

In short, the outstanding cast of this newest Trek is under-served by the screenplay. Or maybe I’m still so invested in the original characters that even a pedestrian screenplay and a talented but disorienting cast can’t bring me to quit them just yet. Star Trek’s value ultimately will be dictated by whether, in 20 years, it is seen as the promising start of the next generation of Trek (as well it could still be), or whether it will be seen as a final, loving tribute to the first generation.

When the crew of the Enterprise is finally united at the end of this film, heading off for its new five-year mission, I got excited, and optimistic—and the voice-over there (without giving too much away) is a particularly touching addition. But I got excited not because I’m sold on the newest Star Trek crew—but because the real journey, the real challenge, is just beginning, in ways the franchise itself may not yet fully realize, or appreciate.