Moriarty Also Saw That STAR TREK Footage... And He’s Ready To Sign Up For A Five-Year Mission!!
Published at: Nov. 23, 2008, 10:33 p.m. CST by headgeek
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
I’m still chipping away at that KICK-ASS set report, so bear with me, especially as each and every day piles on several new events worth covering.
Yesterday, for example, I joined pretty much every other person in LA who covers film so that we could see the 20-minute STAR TREK presentation that Paramount also held in London and New York. It’s been interesting watching the wave of positive reactions from those first two events, including Harry’s considered response. When they do that, it’s sort of like reading reviews of a band that’s on tour, knowing you’re going to see them play when they hit town, curiosity building as you hear about the set list and how good they supposedly sound. And in this case, I find that my curiosity works on a couple of different levels.
I like the original 1960s TV show. That’s pretty much it. Of the theatrical films, I like pieces of THE MOTIONLESS PICTURE, I think KHAN’s a wicked adventure movie, and I’ve got no use for the rest of it. I’ve tried to stay interested, but I can’t really pretend to care about the way the rest of the franchise played out, on the big screen or the small. I like the theory of STAR TREK more than the execution of it.
Of course, I know how seriously people take the material. It’s sort of difficult to grow up a nerd in America and not have at least one Trekkie friend. We hung out with this guy in high school who approached all things TREK as religion. He had a ton of money sunk into STAR TREK, and kept a running tally on the monetary value of the collection of books and toys and memorabilia and soundtracks and movies. He was a Spock nerd in particular, with this “I’m a Vulcan” affectation. I remember when STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER came out... I was working at a theater, and a group of us decided to drive to another theater in our chain in downtown Tampa to see a midnight employee screening of the movie the day before it opened. On the way home, my buddy Jake and I really tore into the film, mocking it mercilessly, and our Trekkie friend sat there simmering for the entire forty minute drive.
Finally, when we let him out of the car at his house, we were standing there, having climbed out so he could get out of the back seat, and one of us made one last joke about how wretched the film was, and he... just... snapped. He started yelling at us, tears in his eyes, fists clenched like he was about to start throwing punches. Telling us how we didn’t understand all the nuances of the characters, and how we didn’t get that it was THE MOST STAR TREK OF ALL THE STAR TREK MOVIES SO FAR AND HE LOVED IT AND WE WERE JUST ASSHOLES AND WE SHOULD SHUT OUR FACES.
It still makes me giggle to type that out. And at the same time, I’m sorry. Obviously, Trekkies have a profound connection to these characters and the world that Gene Roddenberry and his amazing writers on that original series all created. It speaks to them. It means something to them. It’s important to them. And if there’s any group of people who are going to have a hard time wrapping their heads around what JJ Abrams is doing with STAR TREK, it’s probably those hardcore uber-STAR TREK fans.
What I like most about the original series is the optimism. That’s such a rare thing in science-fiction, but STAR TREK was a product of its time, and I always really respected the show’s vision of the future. More than that, though, I think Rodenberry had one perfect idea amidst all sorts of really f’ing good ideas: the dynamic between his main trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. I can name all sorts of other virtues to the original series, but I think the main thing that show got right was Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Part of what makes Sergio Leone such a genius was the purity of the creation of his archetypes “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” and the way he played with them over the course of several films, showing how variations on those archetypes could create all sorts of different storytelling opportunities. Well, I think K/S/M is just as flexible a dynamic, and just as loaded with dramatic potential. If you’re going to get ANY of the characters right, it should be those three and the energy between them.
Walking into today’s presentation, I think I was relatively baggage-free compared to a lot of the people I spoke and listened to before and after. First and foremost, this has to stand alone and work as a film. How it applies to continuity or how it reintroduces the property... that’s all secondary. What matters most is the two hours in the dark, and how well that plays.
And based on the twenty minutes we saw, I’d say Paramount’s got nothing to worry about.
JJ Abrams came out to introduce the footage, and the first thing he talked about was how strange an experience it was to be on the Paramount lot talking about his STAR TREK movie, since his dad was a producer with an office on the same lot when he was a kid, and went to an early screening of the 1979 Robert Wise TREK film when he was a kid, also on the lot. He talked about how it was the script that got him involved with this one as a director, and how it was something he’d never seriously considered before that. He introduced Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, John Cho, Bruce Greenwood, and even Ben Cross, who were all in the audience so they could see the footage with us.
And then just like that, we were into the first sequence. It’s a small-town bar, presumably just off-base, and a bunch of Starfleet cadets are blowing off steam. Uhura (the lovely Zoe Saldana) heads up to order a round of drinks for everyone, and Kirk starts hitting on her. He’s a townie, and he’s very drunk, so even though he’s giving some pretty good flirt, there’s no way he’s going to close the deal. Harry talked quite a bit in his write-up of the footage about the alien guy sitting at the bar between them, and it’s a nice design, a nice throwaway appearance that was actually adding punctuation to the scene through performance, reacting to both sides of what was going on and then getting the hell out of the way when the inevitable barroom brawl breaks out. Two things stood out about the fight: (A) Chris Pine’s a convincing brawler, something I deem crucial in a Kirk, and (B) the beating he takes is surprisingly savage. It’s broken up by Commander Pike (Greenwood), who then sits and talks with Kirk for a while. He knew Kirk’s father, and he was somehow involved in the disappearance of the Kelvin. I’m not clear on the full backstory of the Kelvin, but in the trailer, that’s the ship you see being destroyed at the very end of the trailer. Evidently, it had some sort of encounter with Romulans, and Kirk’s dad was the captain, and his actions onboard during the attack helped save a whole lot of people, but at the expense of his own life. That’s the chip on Kirk’s shoulder, and the reason he has no interest in Starfleet despite scoring off the charts in entrance exams. Pike tries to get through to him, implores him to join.
In fact, my favorite line from the sequence is when Pike finally evokes the image of Kirk’s dad. “Your father had command of a ship for 18 minutes. He saved the lives of 800 people, including your mother’s. And yours. I dare you to do better.” Greenwood’s always great, and he’s (pun acknowledged) commanding in the role. The next part of the sequence is the shot you see in the trailer of Kirk riding out to where they’re building the ship. It’s the Luke Skywalker “two suns” moment, and for me, it worked. Keep in mind... I’m mercifully unaware of Kirk’s real backstory, so I don’t know if this contradicts what’s come before. Evidently, the image of a starship being built on Earth is giving people fits, and I can see why the science of it is a nightmare. But as an image... it’s evocative. Guy’s looking at his ride outta here. It’s just that simple. For me, the sequence served as a real indication of what to expect from Chris Pine, the film’s single biggest question mark. James T. Kirk is a pretty big character to step into for a guy as unknown as this, and if his performance doesn’t work, none of the rest of the money they spend on this film is important. You can’t buy charisma or simply cut around it. Either Pine’s the guy, or he’s not. For me, the experience of watching him in the footage we saw today was a lot like when I went to see the first X-MEN on opening night, and I got that sensation while watching that Hugh Jackman was both the perfect embodiment of Wolverine and a guy we were going to be watching for a long time in a variety of roles. Well, Pine looks to me like the next Jackman, a guy who’s going to springboard into the pop culture consciousness fully-formed thanks to this iconic character he’s been given to play. He’s a brawler. There’s an arrogance to him. But there’s also a soul in there, and that’s what makes it work.
The second clip was set a full three years later. That’s something I’m not sure people get. There’s a passage of time in this movie. It’s not like a bunch of cadets end up in charge of the Enterprise three weeks out of the academy. Kirk isn’t stationed on the Enterprise, but when there’s an emergency call from Vulcan, something about it seems suspicious to Kirk. He has to enlist the help of McCoy (Karl Urban, who is positively spooky in the role), who infects Kirk with some sort of low-grade virus so that he has an excuse to put him in sick bay. Once there, Kirk’s got to warn Pike and avoid being put in prison for his disobeying orders.
Unfortunately, Kirk manifests a few insane side effects (like numb tongue and giant swollen Tom-Cruise-in-TROPIC-THUNDER hands) that kick in as they’re approaching Vulcan, where they’re headed into what Kirk is convinced is a trap. The “lightning storm in space” that’s been reported has only shown up one other time, when Kirk’s father’s ship was attacked. Pike is shocked when Kirk shows up, and Spock (Quinto) is visibly annoyed. Kirk looks like a lunatic, babbling and shrugging off McCoy and Uhura, both trying to stop him from confronting Pike. But when Kirk lays out his reasons, and when Uhura confirms the truth of what he’s saying (she’s an alien language specialist), even Spock has to admit it sounds like he’s right. Kirk’s warning may be the only thing that saves them from flying directly into a trap, and because they’re battle-ready when they emerge from warp drive into the space above Vulcan, they’re able to survive.
There’s a lot of humor in this sequence, but also a lot of tension, and it gave us our best look at Chekov (Anton Yelchin), who’s playing it big and broad. His Russian accent’s so thick that the computer doesn’t recognize him at one point, and I sincerely hope that’s as big as that joke ever gets. I know a lot of people love STAR TREK IV, but it’s precisely that sort of winky winky jokey jokey vomit that makes me hate that film. The entire movie is like an episode of HAPPY DAYS where the cast walks into the room as if greeted by applause. It’s STAR TREK vaudeville, and there’s a few beats out of the Abrams stuff that has just the slightest little whiff of that. I pray that it’s not played up much more than this. Seriously. When you see the way TERMINATOR SALVATION does that, too, it’s going to start to feel like the summer of déjà vu. I thought Quinto’s Spock was underrepresented in the footage we saw, so I can’t really tell you what I think of his performance. The emphasis was largely on Kirk, and Pine continued to impress. He’s funny, but he’s also got a fair intensity at the same time, something that’s not easy to pull off.
Abrams walked out between each clip to introduce the next one, and he worked the room really well. He was funny, like when he explained how Spock ends up in control of the ship, and his first priority is to get Kirk “the fuck off of it.”
Kirk’s abandoned on an ice planet, exiled, and he runs into another guy who’s suffered the same fate, a young brilliant engineer named Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg). It appears that Scotty has also been exiled ever since he ran a disastrous teleporter experiment on a superior officer’s beagle. Now Scotty’s living with a weird little alien dude, and that’s where Kirk finds him. Of all the clips, this one was probably my favorite, just because of the interplay between Pegg, Pine, and the midget in the make-up. Pegg’s got the Scottish brogue down cold, and he looks so different that he sort of vanishes into the role.
Oh, and did I mention that Spock is there, but it’s not Quinto? It’s Nimoy. Old Spock. With Pine’s Kirk and Pegg’s Scotty, playing scenes. So... no matter what, you know this is a time travel movie. Nimoy Spock is adamant that Quinto Spock can’t know he even exists. He certainly can’t meet him or deal with him or interact with him at all. This was the only sequence they showed us that hinted at the time travel stuff in the movie, and they didn’t explain much. Obviously, Nimoy’s Spock is trying to correct something that’s gone wrong in the timeline, and Kirk seems to be the focus of whatever it is he’s got to fix. At one point, Kirk admonishes him, “You know, time travel is cheating.” And Nimoy Spock smiles back, “I learned it from an old friend.” He fires off a familiar gesture and a “Live long and prosper” to finish off the scene. Nimoy is older than dirt at this point, and that age combined with the fact that he’s the only one of these people who has a history with the character he’s playing gives him this sort of quiet dignity that we’ve never really seen from him before, and he’s allowing a lot more emotion to show through, too. He’s so visibly delighted at this younger Scotty, this younger Kirk, that he can’t hide the smile.
One story in particular that Abrams told that I liked: after a take on one of Nimoy’s first few days, Abrams called cut and then started to walk over to Nimoy to give him a note. And halfway over, his legs went to rubber and he just hit a wall. Slowed down. Realized how insane that would be, for him to walk up and tell Leonard Nimoy “You’re doing it wrong.” And Nimoy saw Abrams stop, saw him realize what he was doing and panic, and said, “No, it’s okay. Tell me. I want to know.”
The final sequence was the biggest action scene they showed, and it’s a pretty rousing piece of staging and imagination. You’ve seen a few hints from it in the trailer. You remember the guys in the space suits who look like they’re flying? Well, they’re not. They’re falling. From a shuttlecraft. On purpose. Kirk, Sulu (John Cho), and a Red Shirt jump out and follow a tight descent path next to a line that connects a Romulan ship to a powerful planet-sized power drill that is aimed at the surface of Vulcan, running full-blast. Their job is to land on a platform at the bottom of the connecting line and disable it to stop the drilling. The entire sequence is turned all the way up in terms of dynamic action, and each part of the scene is built as a complete series of gains and payoffs. Landing on the platform intact proves to be too much for the Red Shirt, and his death (it’s not a spoiler... really... you know it’s inevitable) is hilarious and awful. Sulu and Kirk just barely manage that, and then they have to engage in some hand-to-hand (or in Sulu’s case, sword to sword) with some big-ass Romulan guys. Then they have to shut off the drill. Then they end up knocked loose from the platform, and they have to be beamed from their fall towards the planet’s surface into the Enterprise. If that’s even possible. The whole thing builds and builds, and at the end of it, Eric Bana shows up onboard his ship, where he reveals what sounds like an endgame. Onboard the Enterprise, Spock figures out what’s happening, and he rushes to the surface of Vulcan so he can help evacuate everyone who’s at the Vulcan temple, including his parents.
Look... I’m not the authority on continuity or on how this fits into canon or doesn’t, and since I don’t like more of STAR TREK than I do like, feel free to complete disregard everything I have to say about the preview footage we saw. But I’m betting now that at the very least, what we’ll get next May is going to be a rousing SF adventure film with a sincere desire to capture the optimistic nature of my favorite era of TREK. It looks like a huge canvass, and I’m really eager to check out more of the work by Michael Giacchino, cinematographer Dan Mindel, and production designer Scott Chambliss. It looks like everyone’s really trying to redefine and still respect the iconography of the show, and I’m sure everyone will have their own take on how well they do or don’t accomplish that.
May. 2009. Looking forward to it.