Sunday, May 10, 2009
Strange New Worlds
So, to answer about a dozen emails, yes, I've seen the new "Star Trek." And I thought it was okay.
Yeah, that's right--okay. I was entertained, but I wasn't blown away. I agree with Steve that the writers took some welcome chances in shaking up this now-familiar universe, but they also cranked out a lot of very goofy storytelling along the way. Fortunately for them (and for us), they are saved by the fundamental charm of the characters they inherited, and by the vast, open-ended potential for new stories contained within the deceptively simple framework of Captain, First Officer, Doctor, and Ship bequeathed by the generation of TV- and moviemakers who came before them.
In terms of plot, this "Star Trek" is a mess. It's basically a rewrite of the original "Star Wars" with a standard-issue "Trek" villain-bent-on-cosmic-revenge subplot shoehorned on via a rather silly time-travel MacGuffin. The individual sequences are almost uniformly impressive and enjoyable, but the story as a whole doesn't bear up to scrutiny.
This is not a gigantic surprise. New Trek director J.J. Abrams is the guy responsible for the TV series Alias and Lost, and let's face it: for all his many gifts, coherent plotting is not his strong suit.
This is not to say that "Star Trek," version 2009, is a bad movie. It's not. It's not a great movie, either, but if you think of it in terms of another well-worn trope of fantasy fiction, the origin story... it works.
There are reasons why there hasn't been a compelling "Star Trek" movie or TV show in a long time. Gene Roddenberry's antiseptic future where nobody disagreed was incredibly binding on writers (how can you have conflict when all your characters get along, all the time?), and there are only so many times you can tell Roddenberry's basic stories, over and over again. And then there's the much-discussed "canon" issue, about which I'm sorry to say I disagree with Jonah. Up until this weekend, Star Trek was absolutely creaking under the weight of 40 years of TV series and movies and God only knows how many spin-off stories in other media, and Abrams deserves credit for finding a way to jettison all that accumulated baggage in an entertaining fashion. For those who prefer Roddenberry's spic-and-span universe, hey, it's still there, on dozens of DVDs. You can go back any time you like; speaking for myself, I thought it was entirely worn out at least a decade ago.
Even if you think the story of this movie is threadbare and hokey--and it's both--the film as a whole does work, thanks to things Abrams is very good at: characterization and action.
Almost everyone here is well-written, and while we get a lot of laughs out of familiar lines used in new situations, the screenwriters didn't go completely overboard in hitting the familiar catch-phrases and such. Young Kirk and Spock are just exquisitely well crafted; the new McCoy deserved more to do, but what he does get is done well. The four secondary characters all get nice moments as well, with Uhura finally becoming an actual person with something more to do (and say) than, "Captain, I'm frightened."
And this thing moves. It's action from start pretty well through to the finish. With the exception of about fifteen sagging minutes at roughly the middle of the movie, "Star Trek" has enough propulsion to lift a Saturn V. The special effects look great (even if space in this new galaxy does appear to be on the cluttered side), but great-looking visuals are the standard these days.
The cast is outstanding. Every member of the core crew manages to gracefully (or awkwardly, as called for by their particular character) inhabit their roles without stooping to outright imitation. Extra credit is also due to Bruce Greenwood, who plays Kirk's predecessor and mentor with understated gravity. As many reviewers have noted, the only missed notes come from the bizarre casting of Wynona Rider, in a mercifully-brief stint as Spock's mother, and... Leonard Nimoy as "our" Spock.
As fond as I am of Nimoy's usual performances in his signature role, I have to agree with other viewers who thought the movie ground to a halt whenever Nimoy was on the screen. What should have been a career-capping send-off is instead a badly-written, exposition-heavy bore. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I sincerely hope this is the last time we see him wearing a pair of pointed ears.
The design is well-done. I loved seeing the engine room looking like it belonged on an actual ship, instead of like a sterilized medical laboratory. The exterior of the redesigned Enterprise is pleasingly-retro, with the engines themselves looking like something out of an old E.C. space opera comic. I definitely agree with the decision to not recreate the cheap primary-colors sets from the 1960's, and I don't miss the cheesy 80's earth-tones of the "Next Generation" bridge. The new interiors look futuristic to a 21st Century eye, while for the most part still being familiar enough for us to understand what's going on. Some of Abrams' choices weren't so good: I did not need to see two hours of constant lens flares, for instance, but for the most part, this is as well-crafted a visual experience as you're liable to find these days.
I think this movie will not be remembered so much for itself (even though it's as good a slam-bang action movie as we have any business expecting these days), but rather for the new foundation it lays. Abrams' more-than-a-little-goofy plot serves one great purpose: to set loose a young, rough-and-tumble crew to go have new adventures. He's given Star Trek a new lease on life by going back to its fundamental roots: tough, smart guys (and gals) out on the frontier exploring strange new worlds.
I've seen a couple of fanboy-ish reviews expressing glee over the possibility of this new Enterprise running into, say, the Doomsday Device, or a certain genetically-engineered superman with a thing for rich, Corinthian leather. I really hope Abrams (and more importantly, Paramount Pictures) doesn't choose that path. When you've just given yourself a sparking new beginning, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to go and retell the same old stories again.
So, J.J., on the off-chance you're listening: nice work, but like your new movie's hero, you can do better. You've got a whole galaxy to go play with now. Make the most of it.