Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Final Frontier...

    It was the summer of 1984. It was raining but otherwise warm when my mother and I arrived at the Famous Players theater in Londonderry Mall. It was my second time there (the first time having been when I saw Return of the Jedi). We were there to see Star Trek III. My first ever Star Trek movie and a giant leap into a much larger universe.
    After Star Wars had ended I wanted a new space movie to follow. Star Trek had been around for a long time and didn’t seem to be ending any time soon. Plus it looked cool enough–the commercial for the movie looked epic (heck, the Starship Enterprise even blew up in it!)
    I was seriously into Star Trek from that point onward all the way until the original crew were retired in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country. I’ve also followed the other iterations of the concept, from Next Generation through to Enterprise.
    Each has had their ups and downs. But the Original Series was always my favorite. By the time of Voyager and the earlier episodes of Enterprise, Star Trek had gotten formulaic and bland. The original show had its weak points as well but how could one not love Captain Kirk’s daring, never say die attitude? He was also a ladies man (but really, who wasn’t in the sixties? Every protagonist was cut from the same cloth back then).
    Kirk was passionate, thoughtful and a man of action. If something was wrong in the world he would stop at nothing to fix it, prime directive be damned! Spock was his voice of reason while McCoy was his conscience. The other characters were mostly there to support them while not being well defined (how many episodes were Sulu and Chekov interchangeable? Uhura didn’t really do much and Scotty was there to operate the transporter or save the day with the engines at the last minute).
    Flash forward to 2009. Paramount decides to get JJ Abrams to reboot Star Trek with the original characters. I saw it when it came out and wasn’t impressed. Over time I’ve seen parts of the movie again on television and my thoughts have further crystallized on exactly what I didn’t like about it. 

The Concept

    Paramount knew there were millions of Star Trek fans out there and while they wanted to dump the large contradictory back story they also...sort of didn’t. Instead of starting with a complete blank slate they decided to keep some of it after all. At least long enough to use it as a launch pad to explain the new continuity.
    Sci-fi fans are used to time travel (Star Trek is as guilty as any other concept of utilizing it) and they’ve also seen parallel universes/alternate timelines (see Abrams/Orci/Kurtzman’s Fringe) before so they decided to go that direction.
    A better approach would’ve been to just start with a clean slate. Introduce the characters and initiate the story. By trying to hedge their bets the original timeline–the source of all the original Star Trek stories (except Enterprise, which happens before the change)–is essentially nullified. Orci and Kurtzman did damage control with the fans, attempting to explain that the original time line still exists somewhere. Regardless, if all future ST stories take place in this new time line that detail is irrelevant either way.
    Also, the whole time travel gimmick occupies a lot of the movie. We have the original Spock come back in time and also Nero, the Romulan antagonist. This necessitates molding the entire story around the idea and thus, having to explain it. At the very least, they could have cut Spock Prime out of it and just had Nero and his ship come back in time. Same back story otherwise: a catastrophe destroys his Romulus in the future and the Federation didn’t save it for whatever reason so he came back in time to get revenge. This could have simplified matters somewhat and allowed for more character development and plot in the present instead of needing to work Spock Prime in there somehow.

The Story

    Conceptually, a story about their first voyage together wasn’t the worst idea ever (there has been some books that pursued that idea previously but this was the first official attempt to do so). With a new cast in a new continuity this seemed like a logical place to start.
    The script as filmed strikes me as lazy writing. Granted, this was hardly the first ever movie with a script that someone hacked out with little real work on the plot and it won’t be the last. Still, they could have tried harder to make the story better.
    Thanks to the convenient time travel, we can account for all of the significant events of the film. Kirk is born and leads a rough life? Check. The villain’s existence? Check. Kirk’s understanding (along with the audience) of what’s really going on? Check. No effort was needed in making the story work beyond the simple gimmick.
    Imagine a story where Nero comes back in time with no older Spock and does what he does anyway. He attacks Vulcan (without having to figure out how Spock Prime could’ve seen Vulcan being destroyed from the ice planet he was on). Instead of Spock launching Kirk out of the ship and onto the ice planet (a decision which makes no sense in the story, by the way. Why doesn’t he just throw Kirk in the brig?) Spock could be a bit less of a cranky character (like he’s supposed to be) and if he objects to Kirk’s presence, they could reason it out. Perhaps Kirk could even convince him of his worth somehow–after all, both of them lost parents to Nero’s interference. Both feel like they don’t quite belong. They already have something in common. Replace the film’s third act with some challenge that is less contrived and more interesting while helping us relate to the characters and the over-arcing plot then follow through as in the end of the original movie. Perhaps they need to figure out how to destroy the Narada? Or track it and destroy it. My point being that the story would’ve benefitted from a revised third act not involving the clumsy time travel element with Spock Prime that conveniently helps the story make sense to Kirk and audience.
    Another issue I have with the movie is that near the end Kirk offers Nero a chance to surrender (for no apparent reason, after all Nero’s done to them). When Nero refuses, Kirk blasts his ship to bits. What was the point of this? Nero’s ship was slipping into a black hole at that point anyway and it seems malicious–or at the very least, contradictory–of Kirk to do this. Why not have had Kirk do one or the other? Either get back on Enterprise and finish the Narada off or offer to rescue Nero (and if he refuses, as he will, warp out of there). It strikes me as more poor writing.
    I also found some of the little details annoying. In one instance, the film states that Red Matter was going to destroy the entire “Galaxy”. They actually meant “Star System” in this instance but apparently the writers are so stupid they don’t understand the difference. Now, I agree that not all sci-fi has to be hard sci-fi (that is, one hundred percent scientifically accurate according to what is generally accepted or theorized) but at least try to get simple details right. A star system is a star (or stars) with satellite planets around it (like our sun and its eight planets) and the galaxy is all stars in a large group with potentially thousands of planets. This error reminds me of Abrams Mission Impossible 3 where characters get implanted with a bomb that will explode. Their solution is to artificially stop their hearts then get them restarted. No more threat from the bomb. Problem? Nobody in the story bothers to explain why this technique works at all! It just does. Deal with it. Sloppy writing when an easy sentence or two would’ve helped make sense of the whole thing. Likewise, understand the difference between words when you write something and help avoid making the astute viewer think you’re a total idiot. 
    Another detail that seemed pointless was having Leonard Nimoy read the whole “Space, the final frontier...” speech near the end of the film. We’re trying to reboot the franchise, make it hip and modern, but we still decide to keep something in there that is most definitely trying to appeal to fans nostalgia. Why not just drop it all together? At the very least, make Chris Pine read it so it truly passes the torch to the new guys instead of getting Nimoy to do it.

Sights and Sound

    The new cast was a mixed bag. Chris Pine is a pretty boy but it’s unclear how good of an actor he truly is. The script didn’t force him to emote all that much and neither have any of his subsequent film roles. If future installments only rely on his running and arguing with Spock, acting skill won’t matter too much. (One can argue William Shatner wasn’t much an actor either but he did have a Shakespearean acting background and brought enough of his own eccentricity to the role to make Kirk interesting and fun. Currently, I don’t see any comparable thing in Chris Pine).
    Zachary Quinto is Spock. Previously he played the evil Sylar on Heroes. He was cast as Spock because he was white and had black hair apparently. Yes, he can do detached emotion as an actor but I’m not certain I see him as the only option who could possibly play Spock.
    Karl Urban seemed to do an impression of Deforest Kelly playing McCoy rather then trying to be the character himself. Zoe Saldana as Uhura plays her as a sassy black woman (which is better then Nichelle Nichols passive Uhura in the original series). Uhura, in any instance by any actor, is played as a stereotypical black woman. If she can get more character development I might be able to appreciate her as a real character. The same goes for Chekhov and Sulu. They mostly existed as 2D characters with the odd bit of life brought to them by their respective actors (in both TOS and this newer version). They need to be more developed in general. Simon Pegg didn’t strike me as a logical choice for Scotty but in retrospect, he can act and bring charm and warmth to the character so perhaps he is a good choice after all.
    The musical score by Michael Giacchino was decent for the most part. Not really memorable but suitable for the most part. The only part I really didn’t care for was the original series reprise in the end credits. I never found that music very good in the first place (especially compared to what came later from the likes of Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner) and didn’t need to see a modern reprise of it (also, the theme is repeated several times in the end credits for some reason which makes it even more annoying). Giacchino’s score, like many modern soundtracks, doesn’t raise the bar the way all of the 80s movies did. Goldsmith, Horner and Eidelman all produced amazing memorable scores while this one is merely adequate.

The Undiscovered Country

    Star Trek has long since stopped being a cult fan favorite show and turned into a franchise (I hate that term but it’s true). The product is now being aimed at a younger audience with attention issues. The new product is great for that target demographic but not so good for people who enjoyed some of the depth the original had. Like with many things of its time (comics come to mind), Star Trek had characters who grew from younger incarnations into older seasoned characters in their respective films and that was great. But being a corporate product that can never be allowed to end (like comics), it’s now been rebooted for the younger set with stuff they assume that audience wants to see.
    As I write this, the sequel is being filmed. Let us hope it is a vast improvement over the first film. With a clear story and characters we care about it’s still possible this newest incarnation might be worth viewing.

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