Friday, May 8, 2009

Hey, I’ve Always Wondered: If Spock is Half-Human, Shouldn’t He Only Have, Like, One Pointed Ear?

So, like everyone else on the web, I am legally obligated to review the new Star Trek movie. FACT ONE: This is being written mere moments after seeing the thing, in the flush of post-coital passions and whatnot. FACT TWO: Spoilers herein.

Oddly enough, the people who summed this movie up best are The Onion. Not the A.V. Club, but this already-classic clip, which says so much about the last twenty years of Star Trek…and yet, captures the flipside as well.

Star Trek is, let’s face it, ridiculous. Dopey. Cheesy. Campy. All that good stuff. It’s been ridiculous for so long that it’s almost become the emotional core of the show.

Bear with me on this.

I maintain that a biggish part of the charm of the show, at this point in time and possibly even back when it was on the air, is the immense, unbelievable gap between its intentions and its execution. I don’t think any pop culture property has had such a bold, immense, inspiring vision coupled with such hilarious ineptitude. I’m not just talking about Styrofoam rocks and rubber costumes here, I’m talking about what an unbelievable struggle it tended to be for the writers to convey their basic themes in a coherent manner. Almost every episode, Spock would say something utterly insane and irrational and then claim he was just being logical. Almost every episode, Kirk would honour the Prime Directive by fucking up a planet for their own good.* Almost every episode, the show would celebrate science and reason with a stream of unremitting gobbledegook passed off as technical know-how. Almost every episode, this most ideal of crews in this most ideal of societies would act like total dicks to each other and to everyone else.

And yet they had such grand dreams. It was almost like watching a retarded child who was unswervingly devoted to becoming a fighter pilot. It goes past “pathetic” and “adorable” into “tragic nobility on the scale of Don Quixote”.

Take that away from Trek fans, and what have they got left?

In all seriousness**, I bring this up because I feel funny insisting that Star Trek 11 (as no one but me is calling it) somehow violates the spirit of Star Trek. The spirit of Star Trek is to be stupid, and this movie is fairly stupid. But it’s stupid in a cheerfully unapologetic action-movie way. The Star Trek way is to be stupid while pretending to be smart.

Do I sound like I disliked the movie? I did not. It gets an awful lot of stuff right. The premise, as you may have heard, involves time travel, so that this isn’t a straightforward reboot but an in-continuity timeline change a la Crisis on Infinite Earths. In doing this, director J. J. Abrams does a terrific job of balancing references to the classic show with a storyline that will bring in the new viewer. Sulu’s action scene is fun (if maybe a little random) even if you don’t know that he was a fencer on the original show, but if you do, it’s a nice little bit of gravy. There are, naturally, tons of callbacks and classic lines. There’s just enough of a swingin’ sixties vibe to the sets and costumes that your mind mentally transposes it onto the classic show.

And the cast is fantastic. I don’t think there’s a single one I can seriously complain about, though Winona Rider—yes, Winona Rider—seems kind of random, especially given how little she’s given to do. I’ve been chuckling at the badness of “Heroes” ever since it started, but Zachary Quinto is a decent actor, and he’s got an uncanny resemblance to a young Nimoy. Simon Pegg, when I’d learned he’d been cast as Scotty, made me do a double take, but he really does fit the character (even if, as you’d expect, his is a more comedic take***). Keith Urban comes closest to doing an impression of the original cast member as McCoy, but he absolutely NAILS it. Zoe Saldana brings much-needed personality to Uhura, a landmark character who has always, always been treated shabbily.**** Anton Yelchin as Chekov and John Cho as Sulu get less to do, but they still make a mark.

And then there’s Chris Pine. Every photo I’d seen of him before the film made me think of a kid playing dress-up in his father’s clothes, but the guy is much, much better in action. He’s still a pretty-boy, but he has a certain Brando-esque quality about him that works, and together with Abrams and the writers they’ve managed to pull off that trick of turning Kirk’s trademark dickishness and cockiness into something charming instead of punchable. Although, again, a lot of that charm originally came from bizarrely, iconically bad acting. Part of me secretly hoped that Pine would do a Shatner impersonation, but I knew that wasn’t too likely.

The movie’s main problem is the plot. There are a lot of very good ideas here, and again, Abrams knows when to draw from the original show and when to take something in a new direction. What’s more, he’s got a premise that allows him to do this. In fact, I kinda wish he’d gone further down this road. The bad guy, Nero, is a little underdeveloped, but the basic elements of his character are intriguing. He’s not some powerful Sith Lord, he’s actually just the Romulan equivalent of a construction worker…who happens to have been given the motive and the resources to become a tragic archvillain. It’s kind of like if Arthur Dent was handed a superpowerful weapon and decided he was going to avenge himself against the Vogons for blowing up Earth.

…Well, no, OK, I guess it’s not much like that, but you get my drift.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the plot. The movie throws out all these ideas in a somewhat incoherent fashion, meaning the storyline has to rely on coincidence and even arbitrariness to get its ducks in a row. I would have liked to have seen Nero driving the plot more, literally monkeying with the lives of Kirk and his crew; it would have made everything seem more desperate, and Kirk’s ascension to the bridge more necessary (they’re trying to fix the timeline, after all). But the single thing that bugged me was how unbelievably accelerated it all was—Kirk, in this movie, goes from cadet to captain in the course of a few days, and on the Enterprise’s maiden voyage yet! I get the idea of Kirk jumping to his “destined” position under duress, but I really don’t see any reason this couldn’t have happened after he and the others had been serving on the Enterprise for a few years. It makes your head spin a little.

But that’s modern Hollywood for you. There’s some really jaw-dropping stuff early on, I mean the kind of stuff that seems like a bad parody of what a Hollywood exec would insist on putting into a movie to get the youth dollar. I can buy the Beastie Boys existing in the world of Futurama, but on Star Trek? By the end of this completely random, pointless car chase sequence, you know THIS ISN’T YOUR FATHER’S STAR TREK!!!! Largely because my father tends to enjoy logic and coherence in his movies. Which is why he didn’t watch a lot of Star Trek.

Classic Star Trek sometimes seemed like two shows at war with each other: now an attempt to do serious SF, now a show about a bunch of martini-swillin’ swingers warping through space attended by hot chicks in miniskirts, looking for aliens to punch. Starting with the first movie, the latter aspect of Trek has fallen by the wayside, but this movie seems to finally attempt to resurrect it. Classic Trek’s unique brand of stupidity is back, in the form of an action movie, and it’s about time!

But don’t start knocking Next Generation. That show is perfect.

*Though I guess you could argue that the Prime Directive existed as something to generate conflict rather than something that the writers themselves agreed with, but I personally doubt it. Roddenberry seems to have been pretty insistent that Starfleet and the Federation were supposed to have been flawless and Utopian, and in general the show wasn’t big on being anti-authoritarian.

**Not really.

***People tend to think of Scotty as comic relief for some reason, but in fact the show always treated him respectfully. If it weren’t for his wacky accent, Scotty would be that guy who comes into work every day and just does his job consistently well, without ever really being noticed. That always made me prefer him over the showboating leads.

****I just watched “Wrath of Khan” a few days ago, and it’s absolutely disgraceful what an afterthought Uhura is in that movie. Sulu too. Uhura’s big moments are a couple of harpsichord performances and a fucking fan dance. Let us never speak of it again.

No comments:

Post a Comment