Saturday, November 7, 2009

Star Trek: A Second Look

It occurs to me that the praise I heaped on the most recent Star Trek film was a little lavish, and that was due to my enthusiasm and excitement at seeing Star Trek on the big screen again. Likewise, I tend to like almost every movie the first time I see it. Like little kids, I’m just so darn thrilled to be at the movies that I like everything the first time I see it.

Because it was Star Trek, and because it was J.J. Abrams, who did incredible work with Lost and Cloverfield, I am a little embarrassed to say that, prior to ever seeing the film, I wanted to like it. At some level, I had an emotional investment in liking the film.

Now that the hoopla and excitement surrounding the film has gone away, and it seems Star Trek is back and here to stay, my personal enthusiasm has dimmed and I can look at the film a lot more objectively. First, let me be as clear as possible: the Star Trek movie wasn’t bad at all. It wasn’t a terrible film outright the way, say, Star Trek V was. I would not, however, call Star Trek one of the best of the Trek movies, and I’d put it in the same category as the “middle” Star Trek movies, like Star Trek III.

Incidentally, this is pretty similar to my reaction on seeing The Incredibles for the first time. I went into the theater wanting to like it. In fact, a few months after the movie came out, there was a list I wrote of all-time great superhero movies, and I very comfortably posted The Incredibles at the top of that list. Nowadays, of course, I’m a lot harder on the Incredibles and the flaws of that film are apparent to me. For example, I don’t find the main character, Mr. Incredible sympathetic because almost all of his problems are his own fault, of his own making. Consequently, moments based around sympathy for the character ring very, very hollow, like when Mr. Incredible believes his family was destroyed on a plane. And who’s fault was that, you ass? You lied to them for months and placed them in a lethal situation for a reason as selfish and childish as the desire to continue playing “Cowboys and Indians.”

As for Star Trek, there were some flaws, some of which were very, very large.

The biggest is the lack of an internal conflict. I remember when I saw Star Trek: First Contact, and as enjoyable a film as that was at times, it didn’t feel like a Next Generation film. The sight of Data and Picard packing giant laser rifles to blast Borg felt very wrong and out of character. All that movie needed to feel more wrong would be Picard strutting away in slow motion from an explosion. First Contact was all external and the internal conflict was something of an afterthought.

Regrettably, the newest film is very much like that. Watching Star Trek again, I realized I kept on waiting and waiting to learn what this movie was really about. A villain shows up and blows up planets and the crew must stop them. Is that it? Really?

The most troubling manifestation of this bigger problem, the lack of an inner conflict or character development, is shown with Captain Kirk. Kirk is the exact same character at the beginning of the film as he is at the end. He doesn’t grow, change or assume responsibility. When I first saw the film, the scene with Kirk stealing a car made him look like a rebel and a thrillseeker. I thought the reason this scene was included was because later on in the film we would see Kirk change into the person of responsibility that we know him to be. But alas, the movie didn’t go there.

The movie’s emphasis on action resulted in gratuitous scenes that just made no sense. For instance, the scene where they had to parachute to the mining drill. I understand the drill jams transporters, but why attack it with an away team at all? Couldn’t the Enterprise have just blasted the drill, as it ultimately ended up doing in the film’s last act?

Also, watching the Kobiyashi Maru was not as interesting as hearing about it. You never got the feeling this was a matter of pride for Kirk. In fact, he was just eating an apple casually.

The biggest, most major flaw was the villain, Nero. When I heard about him, I thought it was an exciting idea. Usually when we encounter Romulan villains, as in TNG, they are members of the secret police or military (the distinction between the two is vague, which tells you something about the Romulans right there) and Romulan stories tend to be games of chess, with move and countermove against a subtle, cryptic enemy that very seldom show their face (as seen in the three definitive Romulan episodes, “The Mind’s Eye,” “The Enemy,” and “The Defector”). The idea of a “working class” Romulan is just something we’ve never seen before.

But Nero’s motives are unclear and confusing. He destroys Vulcan and tries to destroy Earth for no good reason that I can detect. The destruction of Romulus was an accident, and Spock was trying to HELP the Romulans, so I don’t understand the bitterness toward the Federation, who weren’t even involved. The idea of Nero just waiting around for 25 years for Spock to show up from the time hole doesn’t ring true to me either. For one thing, what reason would they even have to think that Spock survived?

My mentor, novelist John Dufresne, often urged me to improve with this criticism: “Son, where’s the characterization? Is it out the window? Where? Cause it sure ain’t here!” I ask that of Nero. Where’s the characterization? Is it in the window? As I said, his motives don’t make any sense and he’s such a flimsy character.

(And this is such a minor fan complaint, but if Nero had a mining ship, why is it there were no Remans, the master miners of the Romulan Empire, on board? In fact, after seeing the deliberately dark interiors, I expected to see at least one or two.)

Finally, Simon Pegg’s Scotty got on my nerves. The standout member of the cast was Karl Urban as McCoy, who was just about perfect. But Simon Pegg’s Scotty was so different from the original, so obviously “movie comic relief” that he felt like a totally different character. Uhura was given a meatier role, but at least she was still recognizably Uhura.

I don’t like to go after techie scientific errors, but this one is a such a biggie I can’t wrap my head around it: Red Matter. I don’t understand how it works. Sometimes it destroys planets, but other times it creates portals to allow time travel, and it’s not clear when it does one, or when it does the other.

All in all, I hope this article, together with my previous one, give a more balanced view of a movie that was overall, not bad. It could have been a heck of a lot better, and hopefully all the errors that I have with this film will be fixed in the inevitable sequel.


David said...

It could've been a heck of a lot better, but it also could've been a darn sight worse. I had the opposite feeling from you going in...I was just sitting there thinking, "Please do not suck," so when it came out as well as it did I was happy. Not ecstatic, mind you, just happy.

I'd agree with your placement of this film somewhere in the middle of the pack, with TWOK still sitting comfortably at the top. It was solid, summer bubblegum entertainment but it won't have the legs of the stronger entries. I doubt fans will be gushing about it in 25 years.

Yes, Kirk's lack of development was a weak point, even more so because it doesn't seem to phase the geniuses in charge of Starfleet. After the Kobayashi Maru, their sentiment is (and rightly so), this service has no room for self-aggrandizing prima donnas, no matter how brilliant they may be. But after he saves Earth, they change their tune to, "Oh, well if you're THAT brilliant, it's different. Here, have a starship." One of the weak points of all the Kirk-centric movies is this notion that he's the best and the brightest, and therefore above the rules. It's left up to whatever innate sense of humility Kirk possesses to keep him in check while his superior officers and Federation leaders kiss his behind in adoration. This is not nearly so evident in the original TV series, where he's yelled at all the time by the top brass and certainly not the object of awed reverence on the part of other captains. At least in the old days, it took a lifetime of universe-saving for Jim to get to god-like status; it's not a good sign that Abrams has him already there in his first film.

Obviously this will be a very different Spock, as well. He certainly has no difficulty expressing his emotions in public and even goes psychotic on Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise. He also doesn't seem to have a lot of love for the Vulcan race, preferring his human mom, and the planet's gone anyway, so I guess we won't be seeing that ongoing struggle to achieve perfect logic out of this guy.

Confession time, however: First Contact is the only TNG film I can stand to watch.

Julian Perez said...

As long as outright bad movies like Star Trek V, TMP and Generations exist, this will never be the worst thing to carry the name of Star Trek into a cinema. Not by a long shot.

I agree with how you're a little troubled that Kirk is already written as a Living Legend. One of the things I thought was so wonderfully refreshing about 2005's Batman Begins was that Batman's mortality was obvious: he went jumping from rooftop to rooftop and he nearly fell and, I imagine, lost some skin from his wrists.

As for Spock, I was pleasantly surprised by every insight they had into his character in the 2009 film: the idea that his unemotionality is a facade to hide his real feelings, for instance. The Uhura/Spock relationship was such a curveball it had entertainment value almost for that reason alone.

As for the TNG movies, I always thought Insurrection was a lot better than commonly believed. It had a strong set of choices for the main characters, something few of the other TNG movies did, and involved Picard and Co. taking a stand for a moral principle ("how many does it take before it becomes wrong?"). And unlike the other TNG films, the youth and rebellion inducing rays of the planet actually gave a logical rationale for why the crew behaved so violently!

As for First Contact, as long as the Borg Queen exists, Nero won't be the most nonsensical Trek film villain. She shows up in the last third of the film (!) and at no point did we ever believe Data would yield to her seduction. In other words, she was just there to pad out the run time.

Anyway, if the Borg can time travel, what's to stop them from attacking Earth in the past again and again, until they get it right?

Eduardo M. said...

The problem with Nero's motivations makes me think back to something we spoke about a few times in the past.

Nero's story and the events that lead up to Star Trek are told in a mini-series called Countdown by IDW. the problem I have is similar to the one I have with the Star Wars Prequels and something like the Clone Wars tv shows. I don't want to feel like I have to purchase some supplemental material in order to get a complete story. I would rather that the main story, whether its a TV show, movie, or comic, have what I need to understand what's going on with anything related being something that adds spice but is not a needed part of things.

As for the lack of Remans, I see two ways to explain this; 1) Nero has a sort of Romulan pride and would rather work with pure Romulans than genetic off-shoots like Remans, or 2) After the events of Nemesis, no one wants to go anywhere near the Remans, much less have one on their crew.

Julian Perez said...

Eddie -

Might I suggest a third "No Prize" explanation? After the Reman uprising in Nemesis, the Romulans had to learn to do their own damn mining for a change.

There were, as I recall, a few Remans seen in the Countdown comics.

Personally, I loved the Countdown comics. Not since Gene Roddenberry himself wrote the novelization of the Motion Picture has a tie in product been so integral to the promotion of a film. The comics and the movie give a complete experience and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. And it was nice to see some other graphic novel beat the perennial Watchmen on the best-seller list for a change! A lot of details - like for instance, Geordi was the designer of Spock's ship, Nero's ship was built with Borg technology, and exactly why it is Nero's crew look like Orcs, are all explained and improve an appreciation of the movie. Also, it was nice to see Spock and Picard team up!

(Incidentally, have you seen the trailers for Star Trek Online? They use almost the exact same Starfleet uniform designs from Countdown.)

As someone that read the comics, Nero doesn't go after the Federation for no reason. Just not for any good reason. Even with Countdown, the critique of his motives stands.

I'm also glad that the importance and visibility of Countdown put the first crack in Star Trek's phenomenally anal retentive "if it's on screen it's canon, if it isn't on screen it isn't" rule.

I firmly believe more people have read "Spock's World" (the scene with the bullies in the movie was almost word for word from the book!), "The Return," Peter David's Q novels, and "How Much For Just the Planet?" than have seen most episodes of Enterprise.

David said...

I'm also glad that the importance and visibility of Countdown put the first crack in Star Trek's phenomenally anal retentive "if it's on screen it's canon, if it isn't on screen it isn't" rule.

That's as may be, but artistically you'd kind of like a film to stand on its own merits. One wonders if "Citizen Kane" would be so highly regarded if they'd left out the childhood scenes and said, "Huh? You don't know what 'Rosebud' is? Well, you should have read the novelization."

I'm a little concerned that things like "Countdown" give directors even greater license to sacrifice plot on the altar of "wall-to-wall action," and count on the tie-ins to fill in the blanks. The attitude seems to be, "Hey if you want a story, go read a book, Poindexter!"

Julian Perez said...

There were a few bits that were explained by the Countdown comics, like the details of Spock's rescue attempt of Romulus. The idea Picard, Worf, Geordi and Data were actively involved was a cute fact to throw around that tied this movie to the TNG era, but didn't really inhibit appreciation of the film. The one thing I really wish they did have in the film itself was the explanation, given in Countdown, for why Nero's crew look frankly ridiculous with the baldness and face tattoos.

Nonetheless, I do understand what you're saying, David, though I don't think Countdown in particular was guilty of this.

Certainly nowhere near as the prequel Star Wars movies. I appreciate complex worldbuilding and supplementary material, but there's a certain amount of information that is necessary to enjoy a film that ought to be passed to the audience. An example of this was the Sith. They kept on saying that word over and over, but there is never an explanation of who the Sith are, where they come from, and exactly what it is they're getting revenge for...all of which are things one should know!

(Before the prequels, I remember Darth Vader was called a "Lord of the Sith." I assumed it was the name of his home planet, and that he was an aristocrat of some kind, which seems in character.)

David said...

I don't mind a comic or novelization "fleshing out" things for people who just can't get enough even after seeing a movie (I've been there). I'm not as crazy about having "assigned reading" before I even see the film.

Tie-in comics actually are a neat way to do things like shoe-horning in Picard and Geordi for the sake of hard-core Trekkies, without actually putting them in the film and risking the general audience staying home in droves.

I knew the comics were supposed to explain more about Nero, but even before I saw the film I already had a pretty good idea I wasn't going to give a damn about that guy, so I skipped it.

Star Wars is a mess. Lucas screwed the pooch so badly on the "prequels" I can't even enjoy the original trilogy any more, not that I was ever a big fan anyway.

It's been a lot of years, but I think they even called Vader the "Dark Lord of the Sith", which implies a Sith could be something other than dark. You're probably right that "Sith" was originally going to be a place. Despite the official propaganda, it's obvious Lucas made the saga up as he went along, contradicting himself at various points. For example in his novelization of "Star Wars" I believe he establishes there's a two-year age difference between Luke and Leia. You'd think this would make it difficult for them to be twins, but on the upside it would help explain how childbirth could kill an otherwise strong woman like Padme. Twenty-four months of labor would do it to anyone.

Of course now that we've seen the saga of Annakin Skywalker slowly unfold over the course of three films, we know that "Sith" was merely a typo...the correct spelling of course being an alternate word for poo-poo.

Julian Perez said...

Tie-in comics actually are a neat way to do things like shoe-horning in Picard and Geordi for the sake of hard-core Trekkies, without actually putting them in the film and risking the general audience staying home in droves.

Because if there's one thing that keeps women from wanting to see a movie, it's Patrick Stewart. :-)

For a large segment of the population, Star Trek IS the Next Generation. In many ways, the decision to revisit the original with new actors intrigued me very much, mostly because it was such a left field choice. Fans of the original may not see it this way, because they eat and drink this stuff...but as someone that doesn't think about the original much, I was pretty astonished to see them even think about revisiting it.

Despite the official propaganda, it's obvious Lucas made the saga up as he went along, contradicting himself at various points.

So very right. Let me tell you one of the slimier ways: Leigh Brackett, pulp grandmaster extraordinaire, wrote the script for arguably the only good Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back. Leigh, then in her seventies, died a few months before the movie came out. In interviews, George Lucas claimed openly that the most shocking and innovative moment of that film, Vader saying Luke was his son, was all Leigh's idea.

Fast forward a few years later, and Lucas is claiming that he had that idea from Day One, and what's more, Leigh Brackett didn't even really WRITE the finished script for Empire Strikes Back, but he listed her as the writer so her husband and children could get some money after her death.

Wow, Lucas. You're pure class.

By the way, who gets writer's credit is determined by Writers' Guild rules, NOT by an executive producer.

For example in his novelization of "Star Wars" I believe he establishes there's a two-year age difference between Luke and Leia.

Incidentally, I can't recommend enough the novelization of "Empire Strikes Back."

Of all the things that bugged me about Return of the Jedi (which in many ways, was worse than even the prequels) was the extremely lazy way they wrote themselves out of potentially one of the greatest love triangles in movies.

Personally, I blame that on Harrison Ford's charisma. There's no way Mark Hamil could believably compete with a sexual Tyrannosaurus Rex like Harrison Ford as Han Solo, so they had to think of something else.

Leigh Brackett was writing Han Solo type characters since the fifties. There was a great lead to gold alchemy between the inferior George Lucas-written first film, where Han Solo was cowardly, greedy, thickheaded and one dimensional, with the Han Solo in Empire Strikes back as Leigh wrote him, as cunning, canny, gutsy, skilled, and all-round cool.

(I hate to say this as a pulp science fiction aficionado, but I always thought that the only stories that Ed Hamilton did that were at all interesting were the ones later in his career that Brackett rewrote.)

I was especially shocked to read "Nemesis from Terra," which was from 1952 and had this little scene.

When chased by the Martian mining corporation, they come to a fork in the road and the hero grabs his girlfriend's hand in the darkness.

"Which wrist did I just grab?"


"We're going left...and baby, we'd better hope you're lucky!"

I guess I am a Star Wars fan on the basis of that one movie, the only good Star Wars movies. I guess for the same reason I am a fan of Roger Zelazny despite the only things worth reading by him is "Lord of Light" and "Chronicles of Amber."

So, why would I call myself a fan of his? Because Lord of Light is that frickin' good.