Saturday, May 09, 2009

Movie Review: Star Trek

There's a lot I don't understand about the reactions to the new Star Trek film. It's starts with the expectations. Nearly every review begins with how Abrams was tasked with breathing life into the dead franchise. I've been a Star Trek fan since I was about 10, though I've never been to a convention or dressed in a trek costume. Still I guess I'm one of the "faithful trekkies" that Abrams needed to keep happy while he attracted new viewers. Is it so wrong to think that a franchise that lasted 40+ years, spawned 5 TV series and 10 movies and countless books and other things might actually have some good ideas that people are interested in? Is it so strange to think that recent entries have done poorly because they were bad? Four years after Batman was rebooted and three years after Bond was, is it so strange that Star Trek was rebooted? After all, this is the genre that has time travel and alternate universes.

I gave up on Voyager, though I did stick it out with Enterprise. The characters weren't that interesting but the stories were getting better in the fourth season and were doing a good job at fleshing out the backstory of the early federation. Abrams' film takes the opposite approach. There's no exploration and little of the federation aside from the academy; and forget about any social commentary. There are however familiar characters who feel more developed than they've ever been.

I don't envy the actors having to play roles that have been around for a long time and yet have only been played by the original actors. Roger Moore stepped into Bond only 11 years after Sean Connery debuted in Doctor No, and George Lazenby had already played the role once. No one else has played Kirk or Spock or the others in 43 years. Still, the whole cast does a good job. The performances aren't imitations (thankfully) but you can definitely see the old characters here, particularly with McCoy and Scotty. Uhura is now (sensibly) a linguistic expert and is also a love interest. Chekov and Sulu each have a substantial scene or two, which is about what they had in the whole original series.

What's more interesting is what's done with Kirk and Spock. This is kind of a buddy film where the buddies don't really get along. Spock is the cold logical genius who's viewed as inferior by Vulcans because of his human half. Kirk is the impulsive natural born leader. Spock aced his science academy tests, kirk scored as a genius on "aptitude tests" whatever they are. The two now meet in Starfleet Academy and argue about everything. I think it went a little too far having them competing over the same girl but I really did like how they approached situations differently. The scenes in the trailer of Spock being angry had worried me, but they work just fine

The film has the same problem that shows like ER or Grey's Anatomy have (I have you curious now) which is how to take people right of school and put them in interesting positions in their job. In medical shows the interns are all unsupervised and have way too many rare cases. In Star Trek, none of our heroes work their way up through the ranks. They all seem to be prodigies and the only people capable of performing under pressure. I think that's just something to accept to make the story work. But there's definitely something to these characters, if only slight reimaginings of them, in and of themselves, make an entertaining film.

Some reviews toss off the plot as "the universe needs saving again". That's not a plot, it's barely even a premise, but it is roughly what we're given. There's a villain though his motivation isn't told to us until later in the film and even then it's only briefly described. In fact there's enough there for another story and it's been told in a graphic novel that sets up the film. It wasn't that good and the plot wasn't much more than what was mentioned in the film, but reading it did give me time to have the story make an impression. I wonder how those who hadn't read it react to the villain.

I don't care for JJ Abrams the director. There's too much shaky handheld camera moving around for no reason. It's not as bad as in Cloverfield (which Abrams produced) but someone needs to get this man a tripod. He also went overboard with glowing lights and lens flares. It's fine when there's a sun nearby, but there's no reason for them when in the Enterprise, it's like the crew would always be blinded. And finally I didn't care for the pacing. Everything is amped up and there's no downtime. It's not that I needed to rest or I couldn't follow things, but I wanted buildup to climactic moments. That's just basic storytelling. This feels like all fire and no frying pan.

I didn't love the ships. They're both crowded and roomy. The engineering sections look like enormous warehouses with no people in them. Other sections have desks so close together they could be cubicles without the walls. And they're all white and glass and look like Apple stores. There's a scene with Scotty trapped in a long twisty man sized water pipe that leads to a "liquid turbine". I thought of Signorney Weaver in Galaxy Quest complaining, "What is this thing? makes no logical sense, why is it here?"

There's some bad science in this film but that never really bothered me in Star Trek. I'll leave it to astronomer Phil Plait to review of the science of this Star Trek film.

The first hour or so really worked for me. They did a great job adding more to characters that have been around for 40 years. They didn't actually add too much but they put what little we know of their backgrounds into a meaningful context and that really worked. The second hour didn't work as well for me. I was waiting for a similar effort to establish the plot and there really wasn't one. The villains actions have ramifications for our characters, but it was a plot device for an average action film rather than a good sci-fi story.

I hope the next film adds a worthy sci-fi story to the mix. The new Battlestar Galactica has shown that it's still possible to set socially relevant stories in space. Abrams did a great job establishing new actors as characters that I've already been willing to follow to other worlds and stories. Hopefully in the sequel he'll find a world with tripods.

Update: I'm completely shocked that I didn't remember the first place I saw "red matter". It's lame to reuse a plot device this boldly.

Update: Here's some of the easter eggs, the comments have even more.


Brian said...

Need I to say anything, Folks go watch this film its not just entertaining its mind blowing and I love it till death. Go ahead and watch it friends.

Coffee Nomad said...

who knew Eric Bana was a "Trekkie"? He did a great job as the villain though seriously

Karl said...

People really liked this film? It came across to me as a bunch of trekies dressing up and throwing out catch phrases. I can't imagine this film attracting new blood to the franchise.

Howard said...

And yet not Trekkies loved it. I can understand liking it, but they're calling it great.

The Dad said...

Okay, finally saw it this evening. I liked it. I wouldn't got so far as to call myself a trekkie, but I caught a lot of the gags, references and so on. I thought most of the actors did a really nice job characterizing their parts. Even the way Kirk says "Bones" and slaps him on the shoulder...this kid definitely studied. And the guy who played Bones did a great job with it. And whomever Coffee Nomad is, thanks for pointing out that the villian was Eric was bugging me but I didn't get around to checking IMDB. Otherwise, your review was pretty well spot on as usual.