Alexandra DuPont Boldly Appraises Abrams’ STAR TREK!!
Published at: May 8, 2009, 4:47 a.m. CST by hercules
Star Trek: FAQ
(by Alexandra DuPont)
"Excuse me while I climb the lofty slopes of Mt. Obvious and write that 'Voyager' and 'Insurrection' are where 'Star Trek' really, genuinely lost it -- where 'Trek' started looking like it was set in a Sheraton hotel lobby and the series became obsessed with maintaining its "universe" and the story editors started piling on temporal anomalies and other ass-forged deus ex machina in a blatant underestimation of their audience and nobody ever got their shirt ripped during a fight or got dirty or drunk or laid. The series, which had started out glorying in all that was human and raw and sexy, confined its "sexuality" to icy bondage queens like Seven of Nine and T'Pol.... Bring back the bright colors, the curvy women in big hair and boots, the beefy men who profess Jeffersonian ideals while punching their enemies and arguing with their friends and drinking to excess. For God's sake, put the Hemingway back into 'Star Trek.'"-- From my December 2002 review of "Star Trek: Nemesis" for this site
Q. What's the upshot?
Tasked with making "Star Trek" fun and profitable again, J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman did something kind of insane: They took the most worn-out "Star Trek" device of all -- a problem created by time-travel -- and then, for maybe the first time in "Trek" history, failed to fix that problem by the end of the movie.
In fact, Abrams just up and breaks a bunch of fundamental stuff "Trek" geeks have always taken for granted, and he leaves it broken, for good.
On paper, it sounds like a fan-alienating nightmare. In the theater, it entertained the living shit out of me. Because at the same time Abrams is rewriting history, he's also injecting all the fun, humanity, sex, optimism, comedy and bold drama (if not necessarily the Big Ideas) of '60s "Trek" right back into the movie series -- and he's ramping up the scale so it feels almost "Star Wars" epic.
Basically, Abrams has booted a "'Trek' Universe B" in which he can mercilessly screw with anyone and anything from the classic two-fisted '60s go-go boots era -- only without that boring sense of inevitability that can make "prequels" feel like Catholic Mass. If you care about these classic characters, it raises the dramatic stakes in the same way killing Wash raised the stakes in "Serenity."
Thwacking the time-travel reset button is a bold move, but it's also dispensed with in a brisk, low-technobabble manner, because Abrams really just wants to get on with the crowd-pleasing-confection part. He tells the story of James T. Kirk's journey to the captain's chair of the U.S.S. Enterprise as a hugely entertaining (if maybe kind of surface-y) hero's-quest adventure -- an adventure that borrows a ridiculous number of story beats from "A New Hope" and adds the notion of capital-F Fate to the "Trek" universe.
And the fact that Abrams pulls all this off with new actors playing the iconic TOS characters is almost mind-boggling. He basically does the cinematic equivalent of entertaining you by blowing up your house, only to have the splinters fall together in the shape of another, bigger house. It's not perfect by any means, but it's a fascinating magic trick -- one I've been picking apart in my head ever since I saw the movie.
Spoilers from here (though I won't wreck the most shocking stuff -- the massive game-changers that surprised even spoiler-happy me and should really be experienced for the first time in IMAX).
Q. What's the story?
Well, basically it's "Star Wars" with James Tiberius Kirk as Luke Skywalker -- or, as my pal V.Q. told me yesterday, "He's Kirk playing Han playing Luke." Let me know if any of this sounds in any way familiar:
"Star Trek" opens with one spaceship getting smacked around by a much-larger spaceship from a large empire. The main villain on the much-larger ship is looking for someone associated with a device that can destroy planets.
Cut to a farmboy (Kirk) who lost his warrior father and loves fast vehicles. He doesn't get along with the man who raised him, and dreams of a better life in outer space. An older mentor inspires the boy to leave home -- where he gathers an ad-hoc family of vivid, bickering characters who bond under pressure in a really fast spaceship as they try to (a) rescue someone from the aforementioned much-larger spaceship and (b) prevent the villain from blowing up planets.
There might even be an awards ceremony, a retractable sword, and a bar full of aliens in there somewhere.
I'd bet good money that all of the above was totally intentional, but it doesn't feel like a ripoff while you're watching it, and to be fair there's quite a bit more to the story than that. First, there's the whole time-travel wrinkle -- an Abrams specialty -- but there's also a second hero's-quest character (Spock) who's sort of living out Luke's journey in "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi." In this movie, Spock is an emerging logic-Jedi, struggling with anger and grief and daddy issues as he chooses between two distinct philosophical life-paths; he also learns about the secret existence of an older, um, relative who may have made some mistakes. Oh, and Montgomery Scott has a little alien sidekick. Maybe that's supposed to be the Ewok.
What's interesting here is that the film is a sort of thematic bookend to "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." As Harcourt Fenton Knowles put it a while back, "Khan" is "one of the greatest B movies ever made," in part because Nick Meyer added a layer of middle-aged regret to his big space revenge opera: He took these formerly indestructible TV characters and lets all their youthful indiscretions catch up with them at once. Abrams' "Trek," on the other hand, is a very much film about youth -- a movie in which all the characters are still ascendant and James T. Kirk still believes he can beat the no-win scenario, and does. Even though some painful, apocalyptic stuff happens in Abrams' film -- much of it to Leonard Nimoy's elderly Spock, who gets saddled with an Atlas-load of woe -- none of it hurts quite as badly as Kirk realizing he's an aging lothario whose estranged son hates him.
Q. What's great?
1. The cast is a damned miracle. Really, "Star Trek"'s biggest revelation is that these iconic characters -- like James Bond or Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who -- are open to interpretation; they're no longer bound to the actors who originated the roles. Good Lord: They're all Kirstie Alley now.
Chris Pine is good enough that I'm already worried about the sequel, if that makes any sense. Without doing a Shatner impression, he nails the callow young hot-rod Kirk, playing him as Luke and Han rolled into Will Hunting at a kegger. Most crucially, Pine has natural comic timing that allows him to take stuff that reads anvil-subtle on the page (like the barn-broad dialogue in that bar scene with Uhura) and make it charming -- and he pulls it all off using a tone of voice I'd describe as "likeably grating." It's a tone works perfectly for the aspirant, reckless, cocksure, mutiny-prone James T. Kirk. But (spoiler alert) in a move that will surprise no one, Kirk gets the gold jersey and the captain's chair by the end of the movie, and in the sequel, Pine's going to have to modulate that tone of voice, or I'm going to have trouble believing him as the womanizing leader of a heavily armed flying skyscraper. I have no idea if that sort of modulation is in Pine's bag of tricks. I hope it is. I suspect it is.
But really, it's Spock's movie. Zachary Quinto plays the pointy-eared hobgoblin somewhere between the Nimoy of the TV series and the far more emotional Nimoy of "The Cage" -- only with the actual stone-faced Nimoy of the movies wandering around in the background as a living comparison, which can't have been anything but terrifying. Nimoy was the best thing about the original series, for the simple reason that repression is fun to watch, and Quinto plays this up on a hormonal level, adding a real undercurrent of rage and defiance to Spock. One of my favorite acting moments in the film is Quinto's: a single eye-twitch when the Vulcan high council admits Spock to its science academy and praises the perfect grades he's gotten despite his human "disadvantage." Quinto's Spock feels rejected by Vulcan racists and superior to the human company he keeps, except when he's keeping it with Uhura -- in a out-of-nowhere romance that's already making things a little, uh, moistover at io9).
Simon Pegg plays Scotty as Simon Pegg with a brogue, which is exactly what I wanted to see. Zoe Saldana may have more lines as Uhura than Nichelle Nichols had during the entire run of the series. Anton Yelchin goes broad with Chekov's accent, but also (like everyone in the cast) gets a neat little moment to show off his nerd skillset. John Cho, well, he gets to hold a sword. And I'll proudly join the throng geeking out on Karl Urban's freakishly dead-on homage to DeForest Kelley. It's jaw-dropping: Urban is like Gary Cole deconstructing Mike Brady, only without the irony. Drew Moriarty nailed it in his review: "It's basically like someone stuck DeForest Kelley in a time machine and we got the 40 year old version playing scenes opposite this all-new cast."
2. And that all-new cast is funny. "Star Trek"'s biggest sin over the past decade was that it started confusing "grim" with "authentic" -- and when it tried for jokes, those jokes often as not were grounded in chilly Asperger-y sci-fi concepts like "alien culture clashes" and "robots who don't understand how to behave like people." Abrams has put an end to that nonsense rather definitively. His characters, like the actual flesh-and-blood sexpots in '60s "Trek," get sick and laid and drunk and angry and find the comedy in that. Even when the movie goes all pomo and throws in a classic "Trek" line like "Dammit, Jim," it usually feels organic to the situation.
3. The movie updates '60s "Trek" sets, designs and fashions just enough to remove the camp factor, then adds a crucial layer of lived-in detail. I loved that starship engineering levels and hangar bays were clearly filmed in oily, redressed factory sets, and I loved that transporters and assorted buttons still made the old '60s noises, even if the Enterprise bridge now looks like the set from those Progressive car-insurance ads and the ship's nacelles are now giant 1950s hair-dryers.
I think what I loved the most was that I didn't spend much time dwelling on the costumes and sets during the movie itself -- which suggests a scary amount of concealed effort by the filmmakers. That's really one of the chief appeals of this movie: It didn't dwell on anything like "The Motionless Picture" did, yet it accumulates so much detail, it retains "The Motionless Picture"'s sense of awe.
4 I'm slightly embarrassed to admit I kind of got a lump in my throat a few times during the film's first half. It happened during the opening battle where Abrams drops out the sound effects during a suicide run, letting a quiet passage from Michael Giacchino's score dominate the soundtrack; it happened during Bruce Greenwood's steady recruiting speech to Kirk after the bar fight and the Luke-stares-at-the-sunset moments that followed; and it happened during a few key moments of Spock turmoil I won't spoil here. All these moments were manipulative as hell, I know they were manipulative as hell, and they got me anyway.
5 Michael Giacchino's score took a few listens to grow on me, but at the moment I think it's only an artistic rung or two below the classic "Trek" movie soundtracks by Goldsmith and Horner, and it might even pull up alongside Horner's in my mind in the coming weeks. (It would be nice if more than 45 minutes had been released on CD; what is this, the '80s?). Giacchino comes up with a solid theme for Kirk and uses it early and often, and he does a nice job cherry-picking general tones from the series' musical legacy --you hear Goldsmith in the big flybys and Horner in the action cues -- and during the end credits, Giacchino just up and pulls a full-orchestral Desilu and blasts that '60s Alexander Courage theme like it's "Carmina Burana." I think I even heard bongos in there somewhere.
Q. What's not-so-great?
My opinions about what doesn't quite fly in "Star Trek" are almost exactly the same as Herc's. Unlike cowardly Hercules, I will not be hiding my criticisms in inviso-text!
1. Eric Bana does a perfectly solid job as the time-traveling, revenge-craving villain Nero -- particularly when he flouts custom and refers to Starfleet officers by their first names as a show of deadpan disrespect. But as written, Nero is frankly more of a story device than a developed character. To be fair, the main conflicts in the film are Kirk vs. Spock, Kirk vs. Himself, Spock vs. Himself, and Everybody vs. Fate, and don't get me wrong -- Bana isn't F. Murray Abraham shrieking through his space-facelift or anything. It's just that I probably shouldn't have to read a (surprisingly entertaining) comic-book prequel to care about a movie's chief antagonist.
2. Also, as Herc asked: Where the hell did Nero go for a quarter-century?
3. A handful of friends/writers I respect, among them Andre Dellamorte, have expressed some ambivalence over the shape of the story -- specifically, over the way it exists more as a setup than as its own contained film narrative. Dellamorte in particular told me he felt like he was watching a big-budget TV pilot, saying at one point, "It's not a movie -- it's a first act." (Why, our own Mr. Beaks suggested something along these lines in his Twitter feed.) While I guess I can sort of see Andre's point, Abrams' occasionally self-conscious, ctrl-alt-del-meets-Joseph Campbell story structure didn't lessen my enjoyment. In part because maybe it needed to happen.
4. That said: It did lessen my enjoyment a little. Almost everything else that bothers me about "Star Trek" is tied to the film's occasionally ridiculous embrace of coincidence -- Kirk and his father run afoul of Nero in space battles, once at the exact moment of Kirk's birth; Kirk runs into old-Spock on an ice planet after being chased by a couple of monsters to a precise set of coordinates; Kirk and old-Spock then run into Montgomery Scott, who works a couple of miles down the road; &tc.
Most of this head-scratching stuff happens during the 10-minute stretch of movie devoted to explaining the whole time-travel/reboot premise -- and not coincidentally, it's only part of the movie that feels a bit sluggish. I guess you could argue that this is J.J. Abrams exploring the idea of fate in the "Trek" universe (i.e., exploring the idea that this crew was destined to be together). But that's a major philosophical break with a lot of the humanist/agnostic "Trek" material that's come before; Roddenberry's whole deal was that mankind was capable of solving its own problems without the help of God or Fate (see especially: "Who Mourns for Adonais?").
I found the larger story so charming and thrilling that this wasn't even close to a deal-breaker for me. But I'm not sure how someone who isn't a fan -- who isn't on the bus already, basically -- will react to the coincidence-fest.
Finally: Please enjoy this "Star Trek" fan art by Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton.
Warmest, Alexandra DuPont.