Monday, May 20, 2013

Thoughts on Trek



The underwhelming box office news on the latest Star Trek has caused some hand-wringing among studio executives and diehard fans alike. While the film was projected to hit 100 million during the opening weekend of its US run, the film instead topped out at around $70-80m (depending on how you define the opening weekend). This is more or less consistent with the performance of its predecessor—though with the IMAX and 3D surcharges (not to mention general ticket inflation over the last four years), along with the expectation (fair or otherwise) that sequels are supposed to do better, it’s probably quite disappointing all the same.

Some fans blamed Paramount for waiting too long to build on the momentum of the 2009 film, but this reasoning seems suspect at best. For example, Skyfall had a similar four-year delay and yet it did record business for a James Bond film. More realistically, industry insiders speculated that it suffered from a crowded May movie line-up and that it might simply speak to the reality that Trek has had, and probably will always have, limited crossover appeal. For whatever reason, it was never going to do Iron Man business. 

Perhaps, this latest development will put an end to the hype that the last two Trek movies are somehow more “accessible” than the ones that came before. I’ve speculated before that—counting inflation—2009’s Trek really didn’t do that much better business than the older films did in their heyday. More recently, as Box Office Mojo has noted, the 2009 version made only slightly more than the much criticized 1979 debut. The first Trek film did great business in 1979 (largely cashing in on the Star Wars phenomenon) even though few today would defend the film on artistic merits. Meanwhile, Wrath of Khan and Voyage Home made tons of money too—especially in relation to their modest budgets. Back then, Paramount invested in Trek movies for so long (nine features over the span of 23 years) not because they were high-profile blockbusters but because they were proven B-list moneymakers with a dependable fanbase.

This is an interesting moment in the history of the franchise—the next Trek film will undoubtedly have a very different look and feel. The last two films have proven to Paramount that Trek is worth sticking with, albeit probably on a smaller budget going forward. This isn't a bad thing--one frustration for me the last few weeks has been the idea that these recent Trek films are automatically "better" in part because they had more money to work with. But as TMP shows, more expense doesn't neccesarily translate to a better film. Meanwhile, JJ has jumped the ship for Star Warssupposedly in part because of licensing issues, but also probably partly because he senses that his achievements with Trek (both creatively and financially) may have peaked.  As a storyteller, JJ’s work is pretty uneven to say the least—but as a businessman, as a brand manager, his instincts are extremely sharp. I’m tempted to say he’s Hollywood’s version of a Vulture Capitalist—identifying existing, perhaps under-performing, opportunities, maximizing their short-term worth, and then quickly moving on to the next one.

As I speculated months ago, JJ’s notorious “mystery box” strategy was no doubt partly designed to hide the fact that Star Trek into Darkness would be a pretty straightforward genre film—a slick and fun, but ultimately forgettable, summer blockbuster. Another reason given for the film's underwhelming performance has been speculation that the excessive mystery around Cumberbatch's character might have backfired--embracing and foregrounding him as the new "Khan" upfront might have made for a stronger impact than playing games only the die-hard fans cared about. Inherently nostalgic brands--from Disney to James Bond--are wise to celebrate their rich pasts rather than run from them.

The mystery box also seems, in retrospect, to have revealed that perhaps the filmmakers didn’t have as much faith in the product itself—both the Trek brand as well as the specifics of this latest movie. ‘Just’ doing another Trek movie centered on the new iteration of Khan would not be enough to sell the movie to a wide enough audience—and in this regard suggests that the excessive hype around the film, and the expectation of 100 million openings, set the movie up for unrealistic, and unfair, expectations.

This is actually the sad part, because Star Trek into Darkness movie was—I have to say—not too bad. Of course, there are a few caveats to this—I admit to having extremely low expectations going in. On paper, the spoilers in the film sounded dreadful (for example, the use of the Tribble as a key plot device read like the worst kind of Trek parody). But, in typical JJ fashion, the style and pacing of the movie covered a lot of that up. Another important reservation is that I generally liked the last one the first time I saw it too—but on repeated viewings, the shallowness and sloppiness of the storytelling became more and more apparent. I really don’t believe that either of these two movies are going to age well—the true marker of a great film.

But considering they had the audacity to go back to Wrath of Khan, I thought it was pulled off pretty well. Maybe, at its core, I’m just a sucker for the central relationship of Kirk and Spock, regardless of the actors or the story. Across the vast emptiness of our current pop culture landscape, I can think of no friendship I value more—and Star Trek into Darkness cut to that core in a remarkably satisfying way (though Bones is an important figure here as well, and it’s a shame he’s becoming increasingly marginalized). And this also may be partly why—beyond the technobabble—Trek will never be a true crossover success. Its central “love” story has always been between two men (Spock’s unexpected and not so subtle jealousy towards Carol Marcus in this film was, I thought, priceless).

So, when we arrive at the controversial TWOK homage in the end—to some degree, but not entirely, mimicked line for line, shot for shot—it still works to a point because these two films have done a strong job of making these two characters, and their complicated relationship, relevant and meaningful in the new timeline, even while the rest of the narratives have been quite uneven. But it also works because the entire film has primed us for Kirk and Spock’s very different investments in this moment—two reoccurring themes throughout the movie are Kirk’s selfish arrogance and Spock’s inability to handle the emotions attached with death. These are somewhat obvious and perhaps generic tropes, and not exactly the grand philosophical ideas of the old Trek, but they still resonate as true to the characters. So the scene lifting at the end—as creatively lazy as it still, to some degree, is—fits the larger thematic arcs of the movie in a way that doesn’t just feel like a repeat of TWOK.

But still it is, at its heart, a repeat—and that speaks to both the strengths and the weaknesses of this latest film. While the 2009 version felt a little like Trek for Dummies—cramming nearly fifty years of Trek into two hours as part of the “reboot” for an imagined new audience—this one actually felt like a story and not just a stylish recap. And it’s a narrative that pays homage to the franchise without feeling overly derivative or recycled. But still the decision to invite comparisons to TWOK is fraught with dangers. That movie has been, and will always be, the gold standard of Trek movies—and the fact that we are still talking about it thirty years later, and that even the latest Trek filmmakers feel the need to heavily draw from it for a “new” film, is evidence of this fact.

Interestingly, TWOK was made, like STID, by a filmmaker (Nicholas Meyer) who admitted openly to never being a Trek fan to begin with, and who was brought in to make Trek “relevant” again. But unlike JJ, Meyer was not looking for a franchise to exploit. Meyer’s revelation was to see in Trek the possibilities of the naval dramas of Horatio Hornblower of which he was so fond. My point is that—as a non-Trekkie—he approached the franchise as a storyteller, and not a brand manager, and the movies were reinvented for the better because of it.

But there are also important differences in the “death” scenes. In TWOK, Spock had to die because Nimoy at the time was genuinely sick of being identified as Spock. The only reason he even agreed to do the film was under the promise that they would kill off the character (just as the only reason he came back for the third one was because they would let him direct). The day of shooting that powerful reactor scene was a genuinely emotional one for all involved because there was that sense of finality—that Spock might never come back. Even Nimoy was reportedly an emotional wreck that day because he was starting to wonder if he had made a mistake.

There is nothing like that here in STID—Kirk’s “death” is powerful in its own way because we care about the characters, but we are constantly aware of the gimmick at work, which means it can never hit as deep or feel as sincere. Plus, we never really feel as though Kirk is in any real danger. I think, going over it again now, the reason that that scene hit me so much emotionally was not because I felt the loss of Kirk but because it’s the first time in two films that Spock is forced to acknowledge his friendship with Jim.

(Side note—I do find it annoying that the new filmmakers have long said that Shatner can’t come back because Kirk was killed. But what do they do in this film? They kill Kirk and then bring him back. I don’t have to see Shatner in the next one by any means, but I’ve always thought that was a lame even insulting excuse, and this latest development almost feels as though the filmmakers are flaunting that point. Meanwhile, I’m more or less ambivalent about Nimoy’s cameo here in the weird Spock “phone-a-friend” moment).

All in all, though, I am happy with where the franchise is headed—and if anything, perhaps, the underwhelming box office totals and JJ’s seeming departure might open up as many creative possibilities as limitations for the future. While I appreciate how Abrams has helped revitalize the franchise, I'm reluctant to give him too much credit for the simple reason that Trek was too lucrative a franchise to lay dormant forever. He wisely struck at the right time.

I also love the idea that Khan is still out there, and no doubt will one day return, army at his side. But I hope they save that one for a little further down the road, and use the next film to really begin the five-year path of exploration—in a creative and well as planetary sense. If there’s less pressure to create a more “accessible” Trek next time, and perhaps working with a smaller budget will put more emphasis on a stronger script, then perhaps the franchise can go back to being the modest, but proven, moneymaker it always was.