Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek: A Contrarian Viewpoint

At least Ryan Reynolds wasn't in it...

Well, the results are in, and approximately one billion percent of critics and viewers gave a huge thumbs up to the new (numberless and subtitle-less) Star Trek film. Which leaves me in the distinct minority.

OK, let me be clear...I'm not giving it a thumbs down. But it's a movie I'm fairly divided about. As a mindless summer rock 'em sock 'em CGI adventure film, it's a fun enough ride. But as a Star Trek film...not so much.

I'll discuss why, but man, I'm going to spoil the frak out of this film. And if you haven't seen it yet, there are indeed some surprises you don't want to have spoiled--trust me. So if you haven't seen it yet...don't read this. After the plethora of Trek photo below, there be SPOILERS.

Who knew Arena took place on Vulcan?? SPOILERS COMING!!

SPOILERS? I relish them?!?

What do you mean my shirt never ripped the entire movie?!?

Scotty--not drunk yet, just annoying comedy relief!!!

Last chance!! SPOILERS commencing in 3




The review that comes closest to catching my viewpoint comes from Christopher Orr in The New Republic. He seems to share my ambivalence, thinking "yeah, it was fun, but..." Allow to me quote form his concluding paragraph:
Yet, for all the amusement Star Trek provides, it's hard to shake the sense that something has been lost in translation. Abrams's film is in some ways a throwback not to the original series, but further still to the pulpy exploits of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, in which sneering villains were forever threatening to blow up the heroes' home planets. Gene Roddenberry's original "Trek" aimed higher than such space opera, toward the moral, political, and technological sophistication of Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. It didn't always succeed--and, when it did, it wasn't always terribly exciting--but it was something new, and important, in the pop-cultural universe. For his rookie outing at least, Abrams has focused on simpler cinematic diversions. There's no question that his Star Trek radically revitalizes the franchise; but it does so in part by setting aside what distinguished the show in the first place.

Amen. This film isn't "about" anything, except putting the band back together, or together for the first time, or whatever...

That's why it has no subtitle--it's not really about anything. It's as if J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman had never actually seen any Star Trek...they knew the character archetypes from the cultural genetic memory, but couldn't be bothered to actually realize that Star Trek is generally something more than whiz bang battle scenes. The only theme of this movie is "yay, we're rebooting the franchise!" Shallow indeed.

And considering that the only goal we have is to reboot the franchise, to make it more "accessible" to everybody in the 21st century and get the kids and blah blah blah...considering how much Paramount et al have riding on this and how unambitious the storytelling goal is, we get one of the most godawful scripts ever to grace Trek. Maybe not Spock's Brain bad...but at least Omega Glory bad.

[Let me emphasize, I'm not kvetching about the reboot itself. I've said my piece about that, and I mourn the fact that Star Trek is no longer a forward-looking franchise. But I've come to grips with the fact. No, my complaints are all focused on how clumsily and stupid the actual execution of said reboot was. ]

Let's begin with the fact that, in the most crucial Trek film in, say, ever, the writers couldn't be bothered to come up with an actual villain. I've seen this film twice now, and I swear that Nero has no more than 2 minutes of screen time. Seriously. I'll bring a stop watch next time. He's barely in the movie. He's a non-entity, a MacGuffin who's not fleshed out in the least. Add that to the fact that the bizarre decision to make him look EXACTLY like all his Romulan cohorts, and that the script doesn't give him even one quasi-memorable line, and Nero is easily the most ineffectual, forgettable villain in Star Trek history. And that includes Insurrection.

And the more I see Eric Bana, the more I'm convinced that maybe acting shouldn't be his day job. I'm just saying.

OK, so the villain is lame...what about his plan? Assuming that an audience member hasn't read the movie prequel comic from IDW, all they get a brief whip-cut-try-to-follow-along-flashback/exposition-via-mindmeld sequence that does a hideous job of actually explaining anything. In theory, they've been building up suspense for 2/3 of the movie, waiting for an explanation of who Nero is and what his plan is. And what we're given is completely ridiculous and nonsensical. Why does Nero blame Spock? Where do Nero and the huge Ship O' Death hang out for 25 years? Why is a mining ship essentially tougher than the Death Star? Does Nero have any motivation besides "Grrr, I'm nuts?"

And instead of answering any of the questions, we're given the film equivalent of the Federal Express guy reading the Oscar rules. We're firmly into Snell's First Law of Movies: If the creators themselves can't be bothered to actually care about the plot of their movie, why should we?

You know what else really amazes me? How many of the reviews about this film claim that it eschews "technobabble." What a crock. Red Matter? Trans-warp teleportation formulas? A single supernova that (somehow) threatens to destroy the entire galaxy? A drill whose operation somehow interrupts communications and transporters (but not Nero's communications!?!) That's the very definition of technobabble--pseudoscience that's necessary to set up the plot, which can only be resolved with more pseudoscience. And this movie is technobabbliscious, in spades. The plot and resolution DO NOT EXIST without technobabble.

So why does everybody say the movie doesn't rely on technobabble? That's Snell's Second Law of Movies: people only complain about "technobabble" when they already dislike the movie. If they like the movie, they just let the pseudoscience slide by, not even noticing it. So technobabble is never really the problem, its just an excuse for bitching by those who can't think how to express their artistic likes and dislikes.

OK, we have a nonexistent villain, terrible plot, and technobabble out the ass. So what do Abrams and Orci and Kurtzman give us? Simple: they latch on to Wrath Of Khan like a remora, recycling bits of that movie with the glee of Manfred Mann pillaging Bruce Springsteen's back catalog. Let's see what we've got. A) Of course, we've got to revisit Kirk's cheating the Kobayashi Maru; B) We've got an emergency and the fleet is elsewhere (and they don't even bother to give you a reason why.."just because I said so") so we have to send out a ship full of cadets; C) Our villain puts a Ceti Alpha eel--oops, a Centauri eel--into a Star Fleet officer's body to control his brain to get information; D) Let's trot out the "I have always been, and shall always be, your friend" line again, because apparently Spock has a very limited supply of sentences with which he can express friendship; E) the scene of the Enterprise rising out of the mist is pretty much a straight re-do of the same shot of the Enterprise rising out of the nebula mists behind the Reliant; F) Let's reprise the "You lied. I exaggerated" bit one more time...I could go on. Our creators have Khan-envy pretty bad; too bad they have none of the writing talent of Nicholas Meyer et al.

Well, how about the characters? For all the talk of a reboot, all the talk of a fresh start, we get...well, exactly the same characters we've always had. Or rather, the vague outlines. Sure, they give Kirk daddy issues...but the end result is still the same cocky womanizer we've always had. Hey, Sulu knows fencing...oh, wait, we already knew that. Hey, Spock had a conflicted childhood...or, wait, we already knew that, and in fact even the animated series did a better job of expressing that. Hey, Uhura is ultra competent at communications...but we already knew that, and in TOS Spock told her "no one was better equipped." McCoy? We learn nothing new about him (note to Karl Urban: slavishly imitating DeForest Kelley's cadences and intonations does not actually equal "acting.") Chekov? Well, they made him magically good at transporters (why is he better than the people who are assigned to transporters? Never explained...except to give Chekov something to do). Scotty? Well, a love for food replaces the love for booze, but otherwise there's no note here that wasn't hit before. Seriously, aside from Kirk's backstory and Spock and Uhura making the beast with two backs, there's not one original character note here, not one thing that's any different than we've already been told multiple times in TOS or the earlier movies. Repeating tidbits from TOS might make for nice fan service, but it's not characterization.

Consider this: would anybody have been enthused about the reboot of Battlestar: Galactica if they had just made Starbuck and Apollo and Adama exactly the same as before, just with younger actors?? Well, that's what they give you here...a reboot without the courage to actually reboot, the same characters on prettier sets.

OK, so we get the EXACT SAME CHARACTERS (just younger & sexier), a nonexistent villain, a laughable "plot," and technobabble out the yim yam. I'm still not quite seeing how "this is not your father's Trek."

How about the insipidity of the movie trying to have it both ways? They want to show our crew as young cadets, but we somehow have to have them in their expected positions by the end of the movie. So we have Kirk graduating from the Academy and skipping straight from cadet to captain. Because that's exactly who I would want captaining my ship. Really...old Kirk made captain faster than anyone in history in TOS, but that was still too slow for this film. A cadet is intercepting and decrypting top secret Klingon broadcasts--and no one in the senior staff knows a thing about it? Scotty comes in out of "exile" and is immediately made chief engineer, regardless of rank or experience with the type of ship (of course, for that to work, they had to have the old engineer pull the stupid kamikaze stunt on the space drive...)? (And by the way...why exactly did Kirk take Scotty along with him to the Enterprise??) Chekov is better at transporters than transporter technicians? apprenticeship periods, no learning the ropes, no serving aboard other ships learning protocol and how to be officers--our crew is magically, instantly better at their jobs than everybody else, even though they're all about 22 years old, and are immediately promoted above thousands of others, no matter their qualifications or experience (at least we now know how Janeway made admiral...). Because our creators want them young & sexy, but they also wanted the instant gratification of getting them all back together and on the bridge as soon as humanly possible. And if you want to believe that they all came together on the flagship because they're all the best at their jobs, you're required to accept that Star Fleet had previously had the ship staffed with incompetent morons.

So on just about every level, a stupid, stupid, STUPID script. Let me ask you: if this film didn't have Star Trek as the title, and had the exact same plot and characters except not named Kirk and Spock--would anybody be gushing over it? Somehow, I suspect that if the movie were called Space Journey and featured Smith and Quimby, the reviews would be much more negative, complaining about how air-headed and and insipid it was, giving us whiz-bang CGI and explosions while giving us little character and plot. That's my theory, anyway. It's a mindless summer flick, using Star Trek's name and cachet to coast in place of developing plot or character.

All of which, let me emphasize, just spotlights how good Abrams' direction is. He keeps us hurtling along, keeps us on the edge of our seats, and makes us miss a lot of the flaws. The movie never feels like two hours (well, almost never), the action is well directed (well, mostly), and keeps us stuffing our mouths with popcorn.

I know I've sounded relentlessly negative...but considering I'm outnumbered 96-1 in my opinion, I felt justified in emphasizing why I felt the way I do. It's certainly not a bad movie. It's as entertaining as heck, and doesn't bother to make you think at all. But it's still just a mindless summer movie. On that level, Star Trek XI: No Subtitle succeeds admirably. But as a Star Trek movie? I expect more from that than I would from a Michael Bay flick. When you look at this film, not just as any movie but as a Star Trek movie? It's the Never Say Never Again of Trek movies.


**All along, I was saying, man, the one thing Star Trek movies never had was product placement! Please, more Budweiser references!!

Someone needs to be strung up, is all I'm sayin'.

**Not to mention, all Star Trek soundtracks have been missing a Beastie Boys song!! Yeah, because so many kids today are listening to Mozart on their iPods.

And how come no one in Star Trek ever listens to contemporary (ie, future) music??

**Didn't you just know that nothing they could show us could live up to what our imaginations and ST II told us about Kirk's Koybayashi Maru? Sure enough, this was pedestrian and lame, with no tension or surprise. And don't you think Kirk would have reprogrammed the simulator to, oh, I don't know, make him look good, like a good captain and competent officer? Instead it tossed up a scenario Captain Dunsel could have solved, while he just preens like a jackass...

Besides, how can you do a Kirk at the Academy story without Finnegan?? Oh, that's right, he was never mentioned in Wrath of Khan...

**Nero's ship is another creaky plot device, conveniently powerful and powerless, depending on the plot needs of the moment. It's tough enough to completely destroy a Federation fleet over Vulcan in less than 5 minutes...but somehow can't destroy the Kelvin alone in 10 minutes, or keep it from ramming them at full speed? When old Spock's ship shows up, they capture it effortlessly, apparently without a shot being fired...yet that ship and the Enterprise can smash it up when 7 Star Fleet vessels are reduced to debris?

**Love the design on the new Enterprise, great bridge, gods, what's up with that engine room? It looks like it was filmed in the basement boiler room of a 1960's industrial site. Seriously, it looks absolutely NOTHING like the rest of the ship, all stairs and railings and's not even from the same movie! Did they run out of money? Imagination?

**Speaking of design, I'm glad that the Romulan ship follows the George Lucas theory of ship design, with lots of catwalks leading nowhere and no railings over vast yawning spaces with no purpose...

**A number of people have complained how stupid it was to physically exile Kirk from the ship onto a hostile planet, when they could have just stuffed him in the brig. Please, people, please: the writers couldn't think up any other way to get Kirk and Old Spock together, so they had to resort to nonsense...that's how screenwriting works!!

And exactly how close was Delta Vega to Vulcan, that Vulcan appears that huge in the skyline, yet Delta Vega is untouched by the effects of the resulting black hole?

And if there was a Federation outpost on Delta Vega, couldn't they just have used their communications system to call Star Fleet and warn Earth?!? (And before you blame the black hole, the transporter was still functional...)

I tell you--SCREENWRITING!!!!!

**Kirk sure gets choked a lot in this film. Didn't the fight choreographer have any other moves in his portfolio? I'm just sayin'.

**Yes, blowing up Vulcan really, really proves that you're not our fathers' Star Trek. Gee, who'd want to tell stories about a rich alien culture? If they had any balls, they would have blown up Earth...

But remember how every review tells us Star Trek is positive and optimistic and hopeful...despite 2 galactic civilizations being irretrievably lost. Gee, I'm glad we're not in a bleak future or anything...

**Just how incompetent is...uh, was...Vulcan, anyway? They send out a distress call about seismic activity, but they somehow couldn't see that there's a freaking huge unidentified ship in orbit drilling into their planetary core? And they're so clueless they have to have the Enterprise call them and tell them to evacuate the planet--they can't tell themselves their planet's imploding? Think of it as evolution in action, I guess...

**Speaking of Vulcan, its good to see that Vulcan's high gravity doesn't prevent Sulu from doing somersaults over people's head, and that the thin air in no way impedes the intense fight with a couple of Romulans. I guess in this "alternate universe," Vulcan somehow has Earth normal air and gravity...ah, well, it's not like Amok Time can happen now...

**I'm not sure about this "emotionally compromised" regulation (which, since Old Spock quoted it, must exist in the old universe, too). That would have removed Kirk and Spock from how many missions?!? Oh, that's right, without that regulation there would be no conceivable justification for letting violent, lying mutineer Kirk take command...SCREENWRITING!!!!

**You know, instead of giving us a LOOOOONG car chase and an infinitely LOOOOOOONG CGI-monsters-on-crappy-fake-snow-planet scene, maybe we could have invested some time in plot or character development. I'm just sayin.'

**This is merely a matter of taste, but I really don't go in for such physical buffoonery humor in my Star Trek. Swollen hands? Really? A Willie Wonka tube ride for Scotty? Not my cup of tea.

By the way, the tube Scotty beams into is labeled "inert reactant." Water is not an inert reactant. Good things they made this movie without technobabble...

**Seriously, where was Nero for 25 years?

**Hello, Old Spock has traveled this road before, hasn't he? He and Kirk have gone farther back in time, or re-gone back, any number of times, to reset history to its proper course. By ST IV he can whip off calculations for time warp in his sleep. And yet, in the face of this crisis, he doesn't once consider the possibility of fixing this mess with another time trip? He'll let Vulcan die when he was willing to jiggle the past to save Earth any number of times?

**Can someone please find Orci and Kurztman a new gig before the next Trek movie? Thank you.


Menshevik said...

Now I'll definitely wait until they show it on TV! A very interesting review, and your two laws of movies are also very much applicable to other movies, especially comics.

Anonymous said...

I've been wavering on seeing this. Both reviews in the local news that I saw were lukewarm. The publicity pictures made it look like McCoy was a young teacher leading a high school field trip.
I'm curious-do you think the film would work as the 1st part of a trilogy in which the final film shows them as a polished team or are they pictured as just too darn raw here?

Larry E.

googum said...

I enjoyed it, even if I do agree with some of your points. I enjoyed it, even if a lot of the science is wonky. Not just for Star Trek, either.

But...and this is from someone who has loved Star Trek for 30+ years: as much as we love and are attached to Trek, and as much as we sometimes expect of it, it's still basically My First Science Fiction. Star Trek is a primer, a starter, an introduction. Sometimes, it transcends that, sometimes it doesn't. (Someone in the book for Harlan Ellison's "City on the Edge of Forever" made that point, but I forget who.)

And even beyond that, the main goal at the end of the day had to be to make a profitable movie, and on that I reckon they'll have suceeded. Not to say we shouldn't expect more from them next time, though.

Sea-of-Green said...

Wonky science is an understatement. The guys who wrote the script obviously haven't been paying attention to all the latest revelations about Black Holes. The idea that Black Holes behave anything like how they're depicted in the movie is laughable at best. In fact, I DID hear some patrons in the theater laughing about the Black Holes. Star Trek science used to be better than that. Not entirely accurate, but better.

snell said...

Mensh--I would never discourage anyone from going to see it. On its own terms it's quite fun and entertaining...I just wish it had been smarter and aimed higher. I seem to be in a tiny minority, so please don't let me talk you out of going.

Larry--I think the movie displays them as already polished and competent, to hell with the raw phase.

Greenie--I remember the old joke used to be that you could tell what articles were in the scientific journals 6 months ago by what the plot of this week's TNG was. It didn't always work, but at least they were making an effort. Orci and Kurtzman, by contrast, treat science pretty much the same way Golden Age comic writers did: just throw out any old combination of words and treat the result like magic...Abracadabra--Red Matter!!

Menshevik said...

Well, I wouldn't say you (or Christopher Orr, for that matter) discouraged me from going. As you'll see from my comment to your previous post on this movie, I had already half made up my mind not to go to a cinema to watch it even before you saw it. No big deal - I'm not that big a Trek fan anyhow (I only saw most of the original series and the first six movies).

Anthony W said...

Actually this movie did have a bunch of subtitles they were trying out.

Star Trek: This only emboldens us to relaunch TNG. You know who would make a great Data? Zachary Quinto.

Star Trek: JJ Abrams always liked Star Wars better.

Star Trek: We have already begun searching for an actor to play Khan.

Star Trek: Why? Well... Why not?

Star Teek: Why do they insist on making action figues but not making a large Enterprise ship to put all the action figures in?

Star Trek: Hey, is that Tyler Perry? Naw, it can't be...oh shit it is!

Star Trek: It's this or nothing.

Star Trek: oops...we did it again.

Star Trek: Zachary Quinto's escape from television


Star Trek: Because Voyager and Enterprise set the bar so low that we can't possibly fail.

Star Trek: It's not your fathers Star Trek....seriously it isn't...Yeah you caught us, it is.

Star Trek: Trek Harder.

Star Trek: Back To The Future.

Star Trek: The Dude that plays Checkov is also Kyle Resse in the new Terminator movie.

ShadowWing Tronix said...

"Trek Harder" is my favorite.

Actually, a friend of mine took one look at the director's name and decided it wasn't his kind of movie. Star Trek should not be an action movie, but should have some action in it. I may still see it, but I'm already concerned about going with the crew to see Wolverine. Mostly because Marvel's already whored him so much he's already had five different kinds of VD. (Lucky that healing factor keeps coming up..I mean into play.)

Anthony W said...

How about this one ShadowWingTronix

Star Trek: The ads for this movie and the ads for the USA's armed forces seem to be one and the same.

ShadowWing Tronix said...

Nope, too long...Oh geez. They just played a Burger King ad with a group of "Kingons" offering drink glasses. I thought that new costume was scary before. I'm talking frightening small children scary.

Interestingly, the Colussus of Rhodey has been showcasing reviews trying to connect the movie to the Obama administration and/or slamming the Bush administration. Not "right-winger looking to put down Hollywood" reviewers, mind you. Obama "fanboy" reviewers. (Think Chris Mathews of movie critcs.)

LordBowler said...

I'm kinda freaked out right now. How did you get into my brain and post EVERYTHING I WAS THINKING on your website?
I thought I was the only one....

Anthony W said...

Hey Snell when are you going to do a Superman Returns review?

snell said...

Anthony--that would involve my having to watch Superman Returns again...I'm not sure I'm up for that.

Booksteve said...

Well...I THOUGHT I had enjoyed it but...

Siskoid said...

You've really nitpicked it apart (though I can destroy some of your arguments, I won't here). I'm gearing to do my own review Sunday, which will take, I think, a more balanced approach. Won't gush, but won't rip to shreds.

Besides, in Trek as in Who, I've never put trust in the argument that "this isn't what Trek/Who is supposed to be" when Trek/Who has been a large number of things since the 60s. DS9 and Voyager are two very different animals, and they aired simultaneously, for example. But more on Sunday.

snell said...

Rip it to shreds? I thought I was being merciful...

Yes, Trek has been many things. I just prefer it not to be Michael Bay-style mindless action.

Anthony W said...

Dude, you have to do a Superman Returns review.

Cabin Campbell said...

Thank you, snell. You have made most of the essential points I have tried making with my friends since we first watched "that movie". Here's one you left out (I think). Nero was quite upset that Romulus was destroyed and found himself suddenly 100 years in the past BEFORE THE DESTRUCTION OF ROMULUS! His first duty would, therefore, be to contact Romulus and warn them of their forthcoming doom thereby sparing his people. Instead, he, for no apparent reason, attacks a Federation vessel, then, hides out for 20 years waiting to get vengance on Spock by destroying Vulcan.Why did he wait 20 years? I find it hard to fathom how someone with such a small brain and such a clogged thinking process could be in charge of such a powerful mining ship. I can't imagine any sane government or mining company would allow this. Even assuming he stole the ship, he found enough followers, with both the ability to operate a mining ship and the mindlessness to follow Nero? I could go on and on, but you have already done an excellent job of puncturing holes in this bloated disaster. By the way, WTF is up with those phasers?I think they just had the toy maker design them.
All this being said, if this is the only Star Trek we can have, it'll have to do. Who knows, it may cause a resurgance of interest in LegitiTrek.

Jayunderscorezero said...

Good to see that I'm not the only one who thought that the hype around this was a little overenthusiastic.

I'm pretty much with you all the way on this one: I really enjoyed the film, but it's not without its share of problems; its own shallowness and plot problems amongst them.

Evilcritter said...

I am so confused as to why it's so damn popular when everything you say is exactly right. You did forget Winona Ryder though. That needs to be brought up. Anyway, all I could think of after I saw the movie was Ripley's line from Aliens - "Did IQ's drop sharply while I was away?" This is a terrible movie, but everyone seems to be distracted by the pretty lights.
Ugh. The more I think about it, the more I hate it. I blame Q.