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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

For me, reviewing this film is a tale of two approaches. One, as a movie, as if I were not a Star Trek fanatic. And two, from the "fan's" perspective.

So all right.

Here is the review "for the rest of you:"

"Star Trek" offers a bold re-imagining of a venerable television science fiction franchise. To a certain extent, it sheds much of the baggage accumulated over 40 years of television and films, giving non-Trekkies an easy entree into the universe.

We are given the tale of Kirk, Spock and McCoy taking the reins of the Starship Enterprise, in a galaxy populated by both humans and other races. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is a brash young man who is set adrift by the attack of a Romulan villain upon the ship carrying his parents. Without the influence of his father, a Starfleet officer, Kirk has an aimless childhood, squandering his intellect and his drive on bar brawls and car thefts. Luckily, he is intercepted by the wise, gruff Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and challenged to make a better life for himself and to live up to his ability by joining Starfleet.

There, he meets fellow cadets Uhura (Zoe Saldana), McCoy (Karl Urban), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Sulu (John Cho), and an irritating instructor, the cool, logical Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto). Their contrasting styles immediately put them at odds with each other. Spock has grown up the child of two worlds, with a human mother, and a father from Vulcan, a planet whose culture has embraced logic and the shedding of emotion, except perhaps the emotion of racism against humans.

Before their education is complete, they are presented with the threat of the same villain who had killed Kirk's dad 25 years prior - Nero (Eric Bana). Turns out Nero is from the future, and is bent on revenge for the destruction of his home world, Romulus. Also, somewhat confusingly, he blames "Ambassador" Spock for this destruction, even though the Spock we know is younger and clearly not involved.

In a plot development somewhat like "Space Camp," for some reason every other ship is somewhere else, and there are no trained crew members available for the newly-built Enterprise. So the cadets are drafted into service right then and there.

Various plot twists and turns see Kirk marooned on an ice planet, where he meets not only Scotty (a very funny Simon Pegg) but also a much older Spock (Leonard Nimoy). This old spock explains that the visitor from the future has changed history, and that Kirk must team up with the younger Spock, melding their disparate styles and talents into a team that can defeat the threat.

Overall, the plot moves very quickly, and might be a bit confusing to those not versed in Trek lore. But the speed, noise, and bombast are such that pausing to consider holes in story logic (and there are several) is not really feasible until after the movie has finished. The effects, music, and performances are all flashy and dazzling, and it is hard not to feel aggressively entertained by the whole spectacle. Especially charming are Pine as Kirk and Quinto as Spock. Their chemistry works well. The villain, Nero, is somewhat less successful, as his motivations are rather obscure, especially to an audience not familiar with Romulans, time travel, and the like.

It is all done with ample brio and verve - enough panache to surmount its sometimes lazy storytelling and slipshod logic. It is certainly a three-star affair (out of 4). On a scale of ten, I'd give it a solid 7, perhaps even an 8. It is much more entertaining than the average Hollywood popcorn movie, mainly on the strength of the characters and the performances.

Now, for the Trekkies:

"Star Trek" is the product of Hollywood corporate committees, shedding "baggage" in such a way that it dilutes some of the core concepts and appeal of the show which gave rise to the Trekkie faithful.

The characters from the original series are brought together in a way which feels quite far from organic, presumably because Hollywood executives were worried that a slower tale that realistically developed their relationships would fail to satisfy audiences unused to thinking and realism. Instead of being members of a logically coherent military organization, each with careers and internal lives of their own, all of our principal characters are roughly the same age and have the same amount of experience, despite the fact that by the end of the film, they all have different ranks and specailties. Especially galling is the instantaneous promotion of Kirk from 25-year-old Starfleet cadet (in his third year of studies) directly to Captain of the fleet's newest and most advanced flagship. It would be akin to a fresh West Point graduate being given command of the D-Day invasion, or an Annapolis cadet being given command of an aircraft carrier. Why would anyone who had invested a lifetime in this organization respect any order that escapes his lips? Equally puzzling are the promotions of all the other crew members at the end of the film - why is Kirk a Captain, but McCoy a Commander, Uhura a Lieutenant, Chekov an Ensign? They all have the same amount of experience and "seasoning" (i.e., none).

This is the sort of world-breaking contrivance that litters the film. Which is too bad, because "Star Trek (2009)" ably captures the feel of the previous shows, mixing humor, fisticuffs, and dazzling gadgetry in nearly the perfect proportions. It fails, however, to add the integral piece - a logically consistent world, one that creates and follows its own rules, one that is similar enough to our own to be comprehensible, but different and better enough that it inspires admiration and wonder, and makes you yearn to live in it. It is a bit of a tragedy, since just a few tweaks and edits could have turned a story full of workd-breaking holes and missteps into pretty much the best Trek movie ever.

The actors do varyingly good jobs at capturing the essences of their characters, without directly aping previous actors' performances. There are really no clunkers in the group. The quality of special effects is above that of the other films and series, and will definitely impress Trek veterans who are used to less. Many in-jokes and subtler references abound, and will no doubt elicit smiles and chuckles from those who are "in the know."

But that certain something is missing. That special thing which makes something "Trek," and not just "Generic Space Opera #12." There isn't much "Real" science fiction, for one thing - black holes and space ships could have been substituted with quicksand and stage coaches - they are not concepts that drive the plot or the characters or the world, instead they are generic perils, and devices to surmount those dangers. But heck, that could be said of some of the other films, those films that, despite their failings, we would still call "real" Trek. What is missing is the logical consistency of the world. Continuity. "Baggage." In stripping "Star Trek (2009)" down to something that will appeal to a "mass" audience, the producers of this film have denatured it into something reminiscent, but not recognizable.

As Trek, I'd give it 2 stars out of 4, or a 5 of 10. It is better than "Nemesis" or "Final Frontier," to be sure. Those movies were within the "real" Trek universe, but damaged or broke aspects of that universe. This film, owing to its time travel contrivance, blessedly steers clear of "truly" changing any of the "canon." But it also fails to really "be" Star Trek.

So - how good is the movie if I were to attempt to meld (a Vulcan mind meld perhaps?) both perspectives? Well, watching this movie as a Trek fanatic can be something of a bipolar experience. I know I'm being entertained, but something is just wrong. Here's an example: "Star Wars" is a great movie. It is consistently entertaining, has very nice effects, and a surplus of charming performances. But what if it followed 40 years of prior entertainment that functioned by different rules, and broke a fair number of them? Would you care?

So the inner mental story of a Trekkie watching this film is one of trying not to care. Trying to turn the brain off. Trying to ignore something that we love to enjoy something that we like.

I guess it comes down to how rigid and dogmatic I'm feeling about it. It's somewhere between a 5 and an 8, right? It will never go above an 8 of 10, simply because of the lazy storytelling and internal continuity flaws. Whether it climbs above a 5 depends I guess on my mood and on what the seemingly inevitable sequel does to ameliorate these continuity issues.

So let's call it a 7. I guess I'm feeling charitable. But it reflects my ambivalence. I'll still buy it on Blu-Ray. I'll still watch it several times. But If I want a real Trek fix, I'll watch any of the TV series - the medium which, I think, suits Trek best - giving the characters enough time to breathe, villains enough time to develop, and cerebral science fiction stories plenty of opportunities to be tried, even if they fail, and tried again, over hundreds of hours of TV. It doesn't have to be rip-roaring and easy to digest in 2 hours or less. And if I want that, I'll watch Star Trek 2-4, three extremely entertaining films which are also great Trek.

On a more "meta" level, there is one question to consider when evaluating the success or failure of this film in terms of the franchise as a whole. If it inspires a renewed interest in the franchise among a larger cohort of people, what kind of Trek will be produced to meet this demand? Will it be pretty but vapid "Star Wars" style action movies, or will it be the more cerebral, and, to this fan, much more satisfying fare involving sci-fi concepts, philosophical issues, morality plays, and realistically imagined future societies?

I think this film, given the general ease with which it can be enjoyed, will do quite well financially, no doubt inspiring sequels. I just pray to the Great Bird of the Galaxy that those sequels are crafted with greater care and higher-minded concepts than this one was.


What follows are some notes that I jotted down after watching the film. They contain many spoilers, and should only be read by those who have already seen the film.


Why “Reboot?”
  • The ‘Kirk as rebel’ stuff didn’t contradict canon. Almost exactly the same story could have been told without a poorly developed time traveling villain.
Problems as a Movie
  • Is killing trillions really a logical (not Vulcan logic, but astory logic) means of safeguarding Romulus’ future from destruction by an astronomical phenomenon (indeed, how does destroying Vulcan and Earth stop a future supernova?)? Is there no dissension in the ranks among Nero’s fellow miners (not soldiers) in this aim? Is there truly no desire among this crew to simply return to the Romulus of ~125 years prior and simply start over?
  • Why would Nero “maroon” Spock on a planet with a Starfleet base upon it? Why not just keep him on the ship, where he’ll get a much better view of the destruction of Vulcan? Where is this other planet such that it can view Vulcan’s destruction with the same apparent size in the sky as a nearby satellite?
  • Time traveling villain necessitates long exposition of things non-Trekkies would not be able to (or care to) fathom.
  • Shooting at the long, spindly drill boring into your planet never occurred to anyone before the climax of the film?
Problems as Trek
  • So Kirk can be promoted from Starfleet cadet (not even graduate) to Captain, with no intermediate steps? Was everyone else on the SpaceCamp voyage of the Enterprise also granted immediate commissions? Why does Kirk get to be Captain, whilst Uhura is a lieutenant, Chekov is an ensign, etc.? Why would anyone who had been in Starfleet and earned various promotions in rank prior to this event take orders from Kirk?
  • “Transwarp beaming?” Seriously? And as something which Scotty has “invented” at least in concept, BEFORE the original series? Sounds like “transwarp lazy writing” to me.
  • So Engineering is a big warehouse with butt-loads of scaffolding, and no one around?
  • What the hell are the duties of the keepers of the "katric ark," and how effective are these duties, if they involve standing around while your planet is being attacked?
  • Either use Stardates or Julian calendar dates. Not both. Especially not in the same sentence.
Successes as a Movie
  • Good emotional core to protagonist character motivations (as opposed to antagonist characters).
  • Nice looking special effects.
  • Very good performances by the principal "hero" characters, especially Chris Pine.
Successes as Trek
  • Very good performances by most actors in roles, not straight imitation, but creation of character essences instead.
  • Enterprise exterior didn’t look nearly as bad in motion as preview stills looked.
  • Nice mix of space action, fisticuffs, humor, and character stories - very appropriate and reminiscent of "classic" Trek.
In case anyone is still curious about my opinions on movies and Trek, here are some quick and dirty ratings (out of 10) for all of the franchise's films:

7 - The Motion Picture
10 -The Wrath of Khan
8 -The Search for Spock
9 -The Voyage Home
4 -Final Frontier
7 -The Undiscovered Country
7 -Generations
8 -First Contact
6 -Insurrection
3 -Nemesis
7 -Star Trek (2009)

Here they are in order of my personal preference/estimation:

10 -The Wrath of Khan
9 -The Voyage Home
8 -The Search for Spock
8 -First Contact
7 -Generations
7 -The Motion Picture
7 -The Undiscovered Country
7 -Star Trek (2009)
6 -Insurrection
4 -Final Frontier
3 -Nemesis


Blogger Foofy Attorney said...

here is my post on the subject.

As to your assessment of the other movies, I agree with the exception of placing First Contact above Search for Spock. I though Search for Spock had some pacing issues that while not fatal, leave it in fourth place behind First Contact.

6:50 PM

Blogger matthewweflen said...

But First Contact watered down the Borg (with the Queen), whilst ST3 ruined nothing. Yes, FC has better pacing. It has lots of cool stuff. But it watered down the Borg and it encouraged time travel stories, which should be banned from Trek for a period not under 10 years. But taking ST3 as act 2 of a 3 act arc, I think it functions perfectly well. It grows in my estimation each time I watch it (the next time being when I get the Blu-Ray set from Amazon this week, you're invited to come over for a 2-3-4 marathon).

9:09 PM

Blogger Foofy Attorney said...

I get what you are saying, but First Contact couldn't know that at the time, and I think it could be argued that SFS gave VOY and ENT the ability to affix any attribute to Vulcan skills as the plot required. It certainly didn't destroy the Vulcans the way the Borg got neutered, but when I watch a movie, I suppose I care more about being entertained inside the four walls of the movie.

I agree, overall SFS gets underrated, but I think some fat could have been trimmed for time and pacing, and the movie doesn't quite stand without TWOK and VH.

Also, which version of Motion Picture are you rating?

12:16 AM

Blogger matthewweflen said...

The director's edition from the DVD release. It's only fair. The addition of the Vulcan Kohlinar scenes is pretty peripheral, anyway, so I wouldn't say the rating would differ much either way.

12:41 PM

Blogger Foofy Attorney said...

I have not watched the director's cut recently enough to recall, but did they excise at least some of the insanely long sequences traveling through V'Ger?

12:47 PM

Blogger matthewweflen said...

Excise? No, I don't think so. Some of the effects were touched up, but it wasn't anything major.

So the editing issues in TMP still remain, regardless of cut.

3:16 PM


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