Thursday, May 14, 2009

(More Than A) Paragraph Movie Reviews: Star Trek

So, before anything else...SPOILERS.

Over the past five years, I discovered almost inexplicably that I love "Star Trek." This seriously caught me off guard.

Sure, I'm generally a nerdy guy and follow all sorts of sci fi franchises in one way or another, but if you would've asked me in my prime geeky teenage years whether Trek was one of my passions, I'd have most certainly said "No." I watched "The Next Generation" as a kid on and off before become a regular watcher of the later seasons (I still don't get what the big deal was with Tasha Yar). And thanks to an awkward night staying late at the home of my Scoutmaster's family, I was soon totally absorbed into "Deep Space Nine" for its entire run (probably my favorite TV show ever). After that, like most casual Trek watchers, I bailed three seasons into "Voyager" and only came to "Enterprise" on and off during its later seasons after friends had told me producers had ditched its dopey "let's appeal to moms" theme song in favor of stories heavy on "TOS" continuity porn. Somewhere in there, I watched most of the mythology-heavy episodes with the original crew as well as all of the movies, though I was always a '90s Trek supporter before I was a Kirk devotee.

But while I obviously dug the world of Gene Roddenberry enough to devote hours of time watching various Trek enterprises (hooray for puns!) I never had a strong passion for most of it the way I did for comics or "Star Wars" or Ray Bradbury. "Star Trek" series were things I watched on the periphery – mostly late at night or on the weekends with little or no discussion on the stories with my brother or my friends afterwards. Even in the prime years of awesomeness on "DS9," my relationship with the show was singular and almost kind of solitary.

Then a few years ago near the final death of the Rick Berman era of the franchise, I got sucked back into Trek in a really weird way. Like I said, some friends who are much more knowledgeable and devoted to the franchise piqued my interest enough to start popping in for the occasional "Enterprise" episode while I spent my first year home from college watching almost the entire run of "DS9" with my buddy Grog as we both faced the frightening prospects of finding real jobs. Where as a kid I always kind of sheepishly followed the idea that ultimately Trek wasn't as cool as "Star Wars" because it was way too talky and (more importantly) obvious in its interaction with its prime metaphors, I started to see with my second round of watching that Trek was at its strongest when it embraced the things that made it really fucking Trekky. Sermonizing devoid of subtext and blunt, over the top alien races may come off as really cheesy at face value, but ultimately those building blocks made for fun, twisty plotting and fantastic character dynamics and personal development. I started to appreciate these things even more as I began paying attention to the ins and outs of serial television writing (especially when I could compare the later works of the writers I learned had made "DS9" so great on series like "Battlestar Galactica" and "The 4400").

Suddenly, I found myself wasting plenty of time filling in the gaps of my Trek knowledge during massive trips down the Wikipedia hole and getting pretty upset at the idea that UPN would cancel "Enterprise" prematurely (and I didn't even like that show!). Out of nowhere, I was finding myself connecting with elements of the series that had always kind of hung around in the back of my head but never really manifested in a big way, and I also found I had loads of opinions on Trek topics that I wasn't even familiar with. Mostly, I really started to identify with the broader metaphorical ideas "Star Trek" trafficked in: grand exploration and the bridging of various cultures through open diplomacy. It was a strange and kind of disconcerting place to find myself in.

And then J.J. Abrams came along.

Like I said, I've got no real strong connection to the original "Star Trek" series even now. I don't really feel strongly that there's a "right way" to deal with the stories of Kirk and his crew. I don't hold fidelity to any kind of continuity argument made about treating the original episodes as some kind of unshakeable canon. In fact, I could have cared less if Abrams and his Trek brain trust had just come out and said, "We're doing a straight reboot and ignoring pretty much everything that came before plot-wise." When I walked into the movie theater last Friday and watched "Star Trek," I wasn't hoping for any kind of sacrosanct treatment of what I'd known from before as much as I was hoping that whatever new direction the creators took the franchise in, it would hold the potential to deliver a similar kind of story value I'd grown to love in the original confines of the fictional world.

And here's the crazy thing: I think that maybe Abrams might have done what I'd hoped even though there was next to nothing vaguely resembling the kinds of things I love about "Star Trek" in his film. The Abrams movie contains no story engagement with the themes of discovery, exploration and brotherhood that have served as the crux of the franchise since day one. The ideals of the United Federation of Planets and the often mocked Prime Directive weren't simply glossed over – they didn't appear at all on screen. In the biggest sense possible, "Star Trek" side-stepped all the bigger ideas that you'd commonly associate with "Star Trek." And yeah, I'm sure plenty of people who aren't fans of the franchise who will point me towards the very funny and often blogged Onion video that hit this week mocking "scenes set at a long table where interstellar diplomacy is debated in endless detail," but writing all the bigger themes off as boring and nerdy is a bullshit cop out. There's nothing that says a creative set of individuals can't tell a story that both expresses the values Trek has always held up as exemplary while still being exciting both in terms of human drama and big action visuals. Abrams just didn't meld those two ideas here.

But just when the three of you still reading this are probably thinking that absence means I hated "Star Trek," I'm here to tell you you're wrong. I really, really, really liked the movie.

At the risk of getting too far off on a tangent here, really the best way I can explain what I thought of Abram's "Trek" and what made it work as a film is to steal an idea from a comics blogger I was reading of late. See, Tim O'Neil spent most of March rolling out a long critical analysis of Mark Waid and Alex Ross' DC superhero series Kingdom Come. The series of posts is archived here, and is really worth the time of anyone interested in modern comics, but for our purposes I wanted to quote O'Neil's explanation of "momentism" and how Alan Moore (a favorite writer of "Trek" producer Damon Lindelof) used that theory in crafting a few legendary Superman stories:

Moore's approach to these Superman stories is, in its own way, as remarkable as his approach to Watchmen: instead of deconstructing the entire genre, he deconstructed a single character. He reverse-engineered Superman in such a way that he was able to deduce the most optimum possible vehicle for telling the best Superman story - what story can hit the best Superman "beats"? How do you build a superhero comic around an iconic character like Superman? Easy: you figure out the most quintessential things Superman does and build a story around them.

Swap out "Moore" with "Abrams" and "Superman" with "Star Trek," and you've pretty much got exactly what happened with the core of the new film. "Star Trek" is an exercise in proving to non-Trek fans what is supposed to be cool about the original series while throwing a few choice continuity bones to longtime fans. Scene after scene, what we get as an audience is a "greatest hits" style clip show of classic Trek moments. Kirk cockily blows some shit up. Spock uses the nerve pinch. Scotty gives it all she's got. Bones is a doctor, not a physicist. Sulu has a sword. A red shirt bit it on an away mission. Etc, etc, etc. And while that kind of writing can easily slide into nostalgia or pointless naval gazing, all credit goes to Abrams as a filmmaker for combining all these elements into a whole that felt fresh and fun while also remaining familiar. That is not an easy thing to do, but I smiled all the way through without ever cringing at moments which in past iterations of this franchise (and this crew) have come off as really dopey.

In a way, this doesn't come as a surprise since everything we'd seen of "Star Trek" before it hit looked carefully crafted to evoke the original series in the new millennium, right down to the fact that the actors cast in the roles all held a strong physical resemblance to those who they were replacing. But even in that, Abrams picked people who could convincingly carry the parts. Karl Urban's Bones slayed me almost every time he stepped into the frame, and both Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto fit the model for Kirk and Spock while not merely tossing off a pastiche of Shatner and Nimoy. In fact, I think that Nimoy was proabably the weak link acting wise (followed closely by Eric Bana's Nero, who was all right if forgettable as the gravely-voice Romulan villain from the future). My good friend The Last Angry Man seemed quite displeased with the broad comedic reading Simon Pegg gave Scotty (which he'll doubtlessly be expounding upon in his must-read forthcoming review at The Secret Base) although I thought Pegg was just fine if underdeveloped along with all the non-Kirk, non-Spock players.

Still, was the movie really "about" anything beyond its characters being its characters in a slightly more dangerous and unfamiliar (and shiny) version of the same setting they inhabited in the '60s? I'm sure that if you'd query Abrams and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, they'd tell you that the core of what the story is really about lies in that Kirk/Spock relationship and how the two men of different worlds worked past similar pain and loss to become great friends, but I really didn't feel that was in there so much as what we got was a sharp establishment of a screen relationship we already expected. Doubtlessly, Spock's warring emotions and the torment he received for being a Vulcan/human hybrid dished up the closest thing to those metaphors of brotherhood and cultural connections I was praising earlier. But at the same time, I felt the whole "you must feel and accept fear" subtext ultimately got brushed aside in favor of scenes that were blatantly about two buds killing shit with lasers. And its not like Spock's speech-making affected Kirk at all. Kirk remained the character he was throughout the film with very little growth or prodding, a surprisingly effective choice that comics and TV writer John Rogers gets into on this must-read post at Kung Fu Monkey.

And you know what? I'm totally cool with all of that. Even though "Star Trek" wasn't really about any of the things that made me grow to love Trek out of nowhere, its blatantly commercial goal of reestablishing Trek as a blockbuster franchise again was done as smartly as it could have been done, and nothing about the film leads me to believe that future installments can't pick up the bigger metaphors and get boldly going into some territory that will connect with audiences outside of popcorn spectacle. In fact, where "Star Trek" left things for future installments stands pretty poised to take advantage of those elements in what I think are some pretty interesting ways. On a goofball continuity level, the altered reality timeline the film sets up really makes for fresh and unexpected stories in a way that most prequels just can't pull off. People can die on "Star Trek" now, which at a base dramatic level is kind of necessary to bring people along for part 2 as opposed to weak sauce like this proposed "Gossip Girl" spinoff.

On top of that, the idea that Spock's people are now left without a planet can make for some damn interesting explorations into the nature of survival on a physical and culture scale. Or, if that road feels too "Battlestar Galacticay" for Abrams and company, the whole universe is out there for the Enterprise to explore. I've got my fingers crossed that the director and his cohorts will actually engage with that kind of material, and from what I've read, the exploration aspect of Trek was something that drew him in to begin with. Future iterations of Trek will probably not be charmingly ham-fisted like some of the past stuff was, and that's fine. In fact, as much as I like the over the top nature of so much Trek, I have to admit that in today's media landscape, survival will go hand in hand with a little more subtlety.

One thing I do hope is that after another movie or two, someone can take Trek back to TV full time. While the movies are great for building spectacles and such, the long term exploration of a diverse cast of adventuring types in space just works better on TV. I mean, trying to honestly develop seven full time players and probably another five to ten supporting characters in a two hour movie is fucking insane, and it's pretty hard to do with 22 episodes a year too. And while the semi-big names and up and comers in "Star Trek" most definitely won't sign on to step into a long term primetime series when their movie careers are just starting to take off, Abrams background as a TV man means that he should be able to spin some new characters and new situations out of this new timeline. Whether it's set around the same era as "Star Trek" or in the past or in a new, altered future, there's more life in this franchise yet, and that's a very good thing.

NOTE: All the images from this review come off of my pal Brian Warmoth's genius new comedy blog Lolodeck, which I've been totally remiss in linking to. Bookmark that site, and while you're at it, read Warmoth's review here. And while I'm linking, this rundown of continuity connections at ComixMix I found on Comics Alliance is pretty damn solid if that's your thing.

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