Monday, May 20, 2013

Movie Review: "Star Trek" by David Pretty

Star Trek is a fantastic film.  Unfortunately, it bears as much resemblance to Gene Roddenberry's original creation as Donald Trump does to a human being.  I really wish they'd given J.J. Star Wars to play with first.  And, keep in mind, this is coming from someone who actually likes Star Wars more then Star Trek.  Or at least I used to.    

During his recent appearance on The Daily Show, Abrams confessed: "I never liked Star Trek as a kid.  It always felt too philosophical to me."  In a perfect world, this would have disqualified him from helming a reboot since any Trekker knows that philosophy is as much a part of Star Trek as phasers, klingons and Scotty getting his beam-on.  

I think Jon Stewart would agree with me.  Mind blown.

Honestly, it's kinda sad to hear Abrams say this.  With the general populace growing increasingly obtuse, fickle and addle-brained as time goes on, we could all use a bit of philosophy.  Although cerebral movies and T.V. shows are getting increasingly scarce nowadays, I never thought that such an admirable quality would ever by expunged from Star Trek.  I guess I was wrong.  

From a completely cynical standpoint, this version of the venerable sci-fi franchise is the ultimate evolution of mass-appeal Hollywood product.  It's the ADD-addled offspring of Star Wars, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Terminator and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Funny  thing is, those older films kinda look like Apocalypse Now in comparison.  Not only could they be enjoyed on a purely superficial level they also had some interesting ideas purring away underneath the hood.  

Even though Wrath of Khan had its fair share of action and drama, it also dealt with weighty issues such as aging and mortality.  

Unfortunately those early happenstance box office monsters inadvertently screwed up movies but good. Nowadays people feel short-changed if a flick doesn't have two false endings and an obligatory large-scale finale.  And, like it or not, these jaded, popcorn-munching, thrill-seekers are the primary voters at the box office now.  Sorry, but most people don't care if a script tries to activate synapses in a disused, sealed-off region of their brain.  All they want are visceral thrills and they want 'em now, dammit!  

This Star Trek reboot was made with such truisms firmly in mind.  And frankly, it's such a flawlessly-crafted entertainment-related product that I feel churlish trying to criticize it.  I just wish an iota of Gene Roddenberry's original intent lingered somewhere in the soul of this hollow, lens-flare-encrusted cinematic pod person. 

In much the same way that 28 Days Later gave us a Cliff's Notes version of George A. Romero's Living Dead trilogy, Abram's reboot acts as THINGS THAT MOST PEOPLE (SORTA) KNOW ABOUT STAR TREK compilation package.  The purpose of this is two-fold: give die-hard Trekkers a false sense of optimism whist, and at the same time, appealing to those people who believe that Spock's official title is actually "Doctor".

We're quickly introduced to a pointlessly rebellious Jim Kirk (Chris Pine), who's LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF HIS LEGENDARY DAD WHO KINDA LOOKS LIKE THOR (Chris Hemsworth).  We also see the trials of the half-human / half Vulcan science nerd Spock (Zachary Quinto) who's forced to contend with planet-bound racism and the roiling emotions inherited from his obviously hormonal mom (Winona Rider...?).  Thrown into a disturbingly-militarized Starfleet Academy together, these oil and water personalities immediately start locking horns with one another.

"Although the Vulcan death grip technically does not exist I am prepared to improvise."

Kirk sneakily reprograms Spock's "no-win" Kobayashi Maru training simulator, which, by the Vulcan's own flawed logic, is supposed to teach prospective starship captains about "fear".  Sorry, but I've played hundreds of video games and not once have I felt "fear" when "death" was imminent.  Except maybe in Silent Hill, 'cuz that shit is just plain creepy.        

Since writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman only have about thirty minutes to compact years of Star Trek lore, the classic touchstones pile up at a breakneck speed.  Kick tries to bang a green chick.  There are shuttles and beamings and hot phaser action.  And then our favorite cantankerous country doctor Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) shows up and conveniently explains that his future nickname has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with erections.

"Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor not a Freudian slip!"

One major difference from the original series is just how goddamned perfect everyone seems to be.  Uhura, once a utilitarian communications officer with average skills, has suddenly become a Xeno-linguistics genius.  In doing so, Zoe Saldana gets more lines then poor Nichelle Nichols got in the entire run of the original series.  Hey, I'm all for making the female roles more substantial but when the producers bumped McCoy out of the Kirk / Spock troika I fear they did it for purely superficial reasons.  Translation: Zoe Saldana is hawt.

Save for an amusing speech impediment, Anton Yelchin's Chekov is also devoid of any negative traits.  Walter Koenig's take on the character was a lot more interesting because he was cocky, easily-frustrated and a bit of an asshole.  Here Chekov is a freshly-scrubbed, seventeen-year-old wunderkind who conveniently knows how to do everything the script requires of him.

"Permission to scream in wery, wery girlish fashion, Keptain?"  

John Cho's Hikaru Sulu at least has the good graces to leave the ship's parking break on before the Enterprise jumps into hyperspace, er, warp.  The classic Trek episode "The Naked Time" must have been required viewing for Orci and Kurtzman since they reference Sulu's hypoglycemic fencing scene.  But since all of the characters are now iconic paragons, the helmsman has suddenly been transformed into a MASTER SWORDSMAN.  Oh, myyyyyy!           

Led by the chronologically-appropriate Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), this disconcertingly-flawless crew blasts off to confront the villain du jour Nero (Eric Bana).  Ever since Wrath of Khan's box-office receipts proved that revenge is easily grasped by even the dimmest slack-jawed troglodyte, the lion's share of cinematic Star Trek villains have been motivated by vengeance.  This really fucked up the Next Generation films, which forced the reserved and diplomatic Picard to become the galaxy's most awkward action star.

"Why the hell do I even bother to keep Riker around anymore!?"  

After Pike goes M.I.A. during their first encounter with Nero, Spock assumes command and immediately finds himself at loggerheads with Kirk, the ultimate alpha male.  To remedy this, Spock does something completely and totally out of character: he maroons Kirk on a hazardous ice planet instead of throwing him in the fucking brig.  Why would a notorious stickler for regulations do such a thing?  Merely to sustain the film's juggernaut-like pace and facilitate a required meeting between Kirk, Spock's future incarnation (Leonard Nimoy) and the last bridge crew puzzle piece, Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg).

The writers then make an appallingly weak case for the villain's motivation.  Apparently while Nero was off on a mining contract, a star went super-nova, destroying his home planet of Romulus and killing his family.  When Nero learns that Spock attempted to save his homeworld from stellar Armageddon, does he seek out the venerable Vulcan to offer him thanks?  Nope!  He captures Spock, goes back in time, gives him some primo Delta Vega box seats and then forces him to watch the wanton destruction of his own homeworld.

"This plot is highly...nonsensical."

Sorry, but this doesn't even make a lick of sense to me.  In fact, Nero's motivations are so dodgy I really wish they'd just said "Yeah, well, Nero's like...this rogue Romulan nut who wants to destroy the Federation".  Why?  Well, no reason, except that he's Coo Coo for Cocoa Puffs.  The only problem with this theory is that he's got an entire army of guys who are all totally complicit in this batshit crazy scheme.  C'mon, surely a few of these guys are lukewarm on the whole "mass genocide" plan?

Throughout all of this we're bombarded with space opera trappings to make sure that we're all paying attention.  Everyone is running around at breakneck speed.  People are constantly getting punched in the face or choked out.  Phasers blaze away like turbolasers on a friggin' Star Destroyer.  What did you say, Gene?  You wanted Star Trek to be your hopeful vision of a peaceful future wherein problems are solved with diplomacy and understanding?  Fuck you, get back in the photon torpedo tube, ya hippy!  We got box office receipts to tally up! 

What would The Great Bird of the Galaxy have thought about a guns-a-blazin' Star Trek reboot?   

This molestation of Gene's original vision is so egregious that it physically pains me to praise the film from here on in.  Indeed, as a slick, dynamic, piece of action entertainment, Star Trek is almost without parallel.  

The production design alone is stellar.  Despite the occasional Leni Riefenstahl vibe, the environs of Starfleet Academy are pretty convincing.  Although the bridge of the Enterprise looks like it should be populated with bespectacled, lanyard-wearing hipsters, the design is fresh and slick.  Having said that, there is one significant demerit in this category.  Despite the fact that I'm a fan of shooting in existing locations, the Enterprise "engine room" looks suspiciously like a contemporary microbrewery or a milk bottling plant.  Sorry, but I like to think that things are gonna be a little more efficient-looking in the future.  

When you do the Enterprise brewery tour make sure to try the free samples of Romulan ale!    

The starship designs are also quite memorable.  The revamped shuttles evoke shades of the original series without looking like interstellar Volvos.  Spock's gyroscopic flying, thing is also fun to watch.  I also have to give ample praise for the slick-yet-retro Enterprise design.  The classic saucer, curved nacelle armatures and wind-tunnel tested secondary hull all make for a pretty pimp little ride.  

In fact, the only ship that looks like interstellar ass is Nero's mining vessel.  It's comically impractical and designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to look evil and menacing.  Also, can someone please explain how one mining ship can take out an entire Federation task force?  I think the Romulan High Command should discontinue production of those expensive warbirds and just contract Haliburton to build an armada of these fuckers. 

I always suspected that H.R. Giger was a Romulan.  

Many of the classic Trek props have also been updated, but they're still familiar enough to be evocative.  After the addition of some badly-needed texture, those iconic tunics suddenly look great.  And although the phasers suddenly resemble art-deco Flash Gordon pop guns from the 1930's the flip-style communicators are pretty boss.  Also big ups to the make up department for producing some memorable new aliens and faithfully recreating the original Vulcan and Romulan designs.

Armed with a plethora of shiny new toys, J.J. Abrams serves up a visually-compelling final product.  Even during the quieter moments, his camera is constantly in motion, virtually demanding that the audience sit up and take notice.  In the hands of a lesser director, this technique would have most viewers reaching for the Dramamine, but Abrams knows how to shake things up with an arsenal of Steadicam and hand-held shots.

"It's Star Trek...TO THE XXX-TRM!!!"   

This goes double for his action sequences.  From the opening battle between the Narada and the Kelvin to the point when Nero screams "FIRE EVERYTHING!!!" in a moment of gleeful Star Trek-ian wish fulfillment, the audience is bombarded by a constant barrage of visual catnip.  You've got pitch starship battles, Zero-G free-falls, black holes, phaser skirmishes, swordfights, mass genocide, supernovas, rampaging snow beasts, fisticuffs, and no less then two annihilated planets.  Not only is the action cranked up to warp speed, even the warp speed effect has been "punched up".

The film's lone visual fumble is, of course, the oft-ridiculed over-reliance on friggin' lens flares.  Honestly, if this new movie is inflicted with the same palsy I'm gonna track Abrams down and beat him to death with a sack filled with rusty d'k tahgs.  Yes, I know that your brain unconsciously screams "REAL!" whenever you see something like this in a fictional motion picture, but when it's usd this frequently it becomes distracting.  A part of me seriously hopes that Abrams takes the subtitle Into Darkness literally this time out.      

"Thanks to the nictitating membrane of my inner eyelid, Captain, I've managed to retain my eyesight." 

But, by far, the film's greatest asset is its phenomenal cast.  Chris Pine wisely eschews any broad Shatnerian interpretations and concentrates on embodying the swagga and supreme confidence of James T. Kirk.  Also, if Zachary Quinto didn't exist, the film's producers would have been forced to subject Leonard Nimoy to an invasive cloning procedure.  Although Quinto certainly looks the part, he also does a great job portraying Spock's cool, know-it-all qualities as well as the Vulcan's considerable dark side.

Zoe Saldana also manages to eke out some memorable moments for herself.  Her comedic delivery during the umpteenth run of the Kobayashi Maru scenario is pretty amusing and her scenes with Quinto's Spock are genuinely heartfelt, if not strangely arbitrary.  As soon as their incongruous intimacies are revealed, Uhura's throwaway comment about displaying "oral sensitivity" suddenly casts Starfleet nepotism in a decidedly sordid light.

"Seriously, is this the real script or someone's fanfic?"

Apparently only Karl Urban was brave enough to attempt an out-and-out impersonation of an original cast member.  Although this could have been disastrous, Urban actually does a fine job evoking shades of the late, great DeForest Kelley.  Unfortunately, in lieu of Uhura's "promotion", many of McCoy's lines boil down to Vulcan insults or permutations of the old "I'm a doctor, not a (fill in the blank)" chestnut.  C'mon, where are the knock-down, drag-out verbal battles between Kirk, Spock and Bones?    

I was quite pleased to see that Simon Pegg had inherited the role of our favorite shore-leave-allergic Scottish engineer.  Rocking a legitimate accent, Pegg lends a light comedic touch to his scenes while retaining the character's quirky qualities and penchant for getting flustered.  Now if they could only retcon his little reptilian midget sidekick out of existence, we'd be all set.  Honestly, I have no idea what the writers were smoking when they came up with that borderline Binksian idea.

"I don't care what that the l'il punter said, our relationship is strictly professional!"

Before he's sidelined by script requirements, distinguished Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood is also a commanding presence as Captain Christopher Pike.  He's so good, in fact, that I really wish he didn;t have to become a victim of continuity.  Seriously, if Star Trek ever goes back to television where it truly belongs, I'd love to see him back in the captain's chair, even if that chair has wheels.          

Although Anton Yelchin's Chekov isn't nearly as interesting, he certainly has the character's frenetic qualities down pat.  Above and beyond his inability to pronounce the letter "V", Yelchin exhibits boundless enthusiasm and some amusing, throwaway Russian asides that make him compelling to watch.  Rounding out the bridge crew, John Cho displays plenty of humble charisma as Sulu, but I can't help but miss George Takei's unmistakable baritone.  

"Look, if you ask me to 'Set phasers to fabulous' one more time..."

About the only character to get shortchanged is Eric Bana's Nero.  Since the writers spend most of the film furiously mashing the reset button, he really doesn't get an opportunity to become anything more then a self-righteous thug.  Nevertheless, his fleeting on-screen moments are intense and his first ship-to-ship face off with the Enterprise crew dispenses with years of stuffy, predictable protocol in one glorious moment of informality.

As I've said before, only a joyless dick could possibly hate this film.  In order to cram all these disparate pieces into place, the writers didn't have a lot of time for character development or exploring BIG IDEAS.  I also know that the concept of bankrolling a slow-moving and *ick* philosophical film like Star Trek: The Motion Picture is downright laughable in this day and age.

"Aw, man, now that Sherlock guy is all pissed off!"

Having said that, I really hope that Into Darkness tries to embody the heart and soul of Star Trek instead of just wearing its face.  Why?  Because Star Wars is Star Wars and Star Trek is...not.  Honestly, do we really want everything to become increasingly interchangeable, homogenous, predicable and boring?

Tilt: down.


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