Sunday, November 22, 2009

Star Trek rebooted

I finally got around to seeing the 2009 reboot of the superannuated Star Trek series. Star Trek movies are notoriously hit and miss.

How does this installment (hereafter ST11) stack up? We need to judge a film, in part, by what it tries to accomplish. ST11 is largely successful on its own level.

It’s been criticized for superficiality. For example, Roger Ebert says, “The Gene Roddenberry years, when stories might play with questions of science, ideals or philosophy, have been replaced by stories reduced to loud and colorful action.”

I think that both overestimates Roddenberry and underestimates ST11. One of the attractions of the SF genre is that it allows us to explore impossible possibilities.

However, since most SF writers are atheists, they are better at asking the big questions than answering them. I’m happy to be spared Roddenberry’s pop philosophy. And I think TNG generally got better after he kicked the bucket.

Ebert maybe at that time of life where his nostalgia enhances the original experience. But many of the TOS episodes were clunkers. At the early episodes of TNG had its share of clunkers, too.

Star Trek films (as well as TV episodes) get bogged down when the franchise takes itself too seriously. When it assumes an oracular tone of voice.

These are things I liked about ST11:

1.Many people have commented on the breakneck pace of the action. But there’s more to it than that. In many films, the plot is a series of set-pieces which are discontinuous in time and pace. You cut back and forth from one scene at one time or place to another scene at another time or place. In other words, the action moves in skips and jumps. Indeed, this is a deliberate technique to lend variety to the action, by juxtaposing two or more contrasting scenes.

By contrast, the action ST11 far more stepwise, especially in the first half or so of the film. It’s as if there was a cameraman who tagged along behind the characters as they go from place to another, without any breaks in-between. The effect, then, is to make the viewer feel like he’s following the characters wherever they go. The view is immersed in the flow of the action.

So it isn’t just the fast-paced, action-packed storyline which gives the film so much angular momentum. Rather, it’s the continuous action that generates impetus.

The action isn’t nonstop just in the sense that there’s one zippy scene after another. Rather, it’s nonstop in the sense that one scene follows directly on the heels of another. Contiguous in time and space. No let up. No time to stop and catch your breath. You have to keep moving every step of the way.

That wouldn’t work of a Jane Austen flick, but it’s a very effective technique for a film like this.

2.ST11 is partly driven by action, but it’s also driven by emotion. Not pursuing the “great idea,” but the raw, spontaneous feelings of the cadets.

Basically, it’s a celebration of youthful exuberance. Adventurous, energetic twenty-somethings. A frat house in outer space. High school football in the stars.

These are characters and actors having a ball working together. Having a good time. Getting a bang out of life. It’s fun to watch men and women having so much fun.

Of course, that isn’t deep and searching. But it works for the kind of film it is. Different phases of the lifecycle have their own rhythm.

3.The CGI is expert. At a minimum, SF buffs expect realistic CGI. “Realistic,” not in the sense of possible, but a realistic illusion. In addition, the CGI is spectacular.

But it’s more than dazzling special effects. The film makes a genuine effort to really see into the future. To closely visualize the futuristic world (or worlds) in which the action takes place. It’s very dense. Fills in all the details. No fudging.

That’s an artistic achievement. And it contributes to the sense of immersion. The viewer is inserted into a completely furnished futuristic world. As if we were right there, alongside the characters. Inside the world of the film. That’s a good use of CGI.

4.The director and screenwriters have also made an effort to fill in the marginal characters from TOS. I think they do so with varying degrees of success. Scotty is basically there for comic relief. But they probably give him for airtime in this one film than just about the entirely of TOS. And they also give him lots of colorful Celtic dialogue to roll his tongue around.

“Bones” is good. More humorous than Kelly’s moralistic performance. I appreciate their effort to give Uhura more to say and do, but it’s a stretch. Feels padded. Because it is. There’s still not much they can do with Sulu. At least not in this installment. They turn Chekhov into a wunderkind–which is more entertaining than the original character.

I’ve never known what directors see in Winona Ryder. There are better actresses, as well as better-looking actresses. But she’s a minor character, so it doesn’t much matter.

I prefer Mark Lenard as Sarek. But, of course, he wasn’t available to reprise his old role.

Then you have Leonard Nimoy in his swan song. He’s looking and sounding very frail, which is not surprising for a guy who’s pushing 80.

I’ve never known what happened to Nimoy’s voice. In TOS he had an excellent speaking voice, but over the years it became a shambles. Did alcoholism damage his vocal chords?

Then there are some things I think are less successful:

1.The problem with time travel is that it logically eliminates the element of risk. You don’t need to save the world in the nick of time since you can always go back in time and head off the precipitating event that caused the catastrophe in the first place. So the logic of time travel (to the extent that time travel is even logical) severs the nerve of any dramatic suspense. To enjoy the action you have to suppress that consideration.

2.The dramatic value of the Vulcan character trades on the tension between their outward control and their sublimated emotions. ST11 dissolves the tension by making the Vulcans too overtly sentimental. At that point they become equivalent to human characters. So why have them?

3.Chris Pine is convincing as a cadet. He’s not convincing as a captain. He succeeds in this role in this particular film because he’s jumping into the breach. He could function as head of the Away Team, but not as a starship captain.

Quinto is perfectly cast as Spock. But there are problems with the way his role is scripted (see above).

In sum, the film is a great romp–like a trip to a futuristic amusement park.


  1. I loved both the action scenes, which, as you say, were thoroughly realistic, and the interplay between the characters, which they did a very fine job with. (Yes, it was a bit unbelievable that a Star Fleet Cadet could graduate and become a star ship captain.)

    But I remember watching this at the theaters this past summer and saying to my kids, "They've given the old Star Trek back to us."

    I think any future movies they do in this series will be lots of fun as well.

  2. Love Winona! A very unique, great actor and very uniquely beautiful, too!!! I just can’t wait to see her in Aronofsky’s “Black Swan!!!” GO WINONA!

  3. Well, I won't argue over a woman since that might lead to a duel!

  4. "However, since most SF writers are atheists"

    I remember when I was a young Christian, my humanist sister gave me a book by Isaac Asimov: The Foundation and Empire, I think.

    I was really drawn into reading it. I think the Lord used this book to help me start reading again. because i was such a slacker, and lazy about reading. It was a way to prime for the Good Book, and for good books, and good writers.

    I just watched half of ST11 last night. not too impressed, to be honest.

    i like the Star Trek TV series, because i saw the premieres every Friday night as a young boy. Nostalgia is something that feels good for some reason.

    I'll watch the other half tonight. I stopped right where Spock (Leonard Nimoy)meets "Beam me up Scotty".

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  5. What ST11 gets right is establishing that the characters are the reason we are drawn into a story and stay with the story. Too many iterations of Trek have assumed (wrongly) that the draw is the intellectual conceit (used in every sense of that phrase) and the plausibility of the world. It's more true to say that I was drawn to the original series because of the characters and because of the camp elements that "serious" Trek fans find embarrassing. Spock vs evil sentient flying pancakes that sound like dog chew toys that squeak sums up what I loved about the series when I saw it as a kid. Trek's longevity as popular entertainment is arguably despite Roddenberry's "vision" and not because of it.

    Star Trek has a longevity that is despite rather than because of Roddenberry's pop philosophy and self-aggrandizing moralism. Abrams was wise to go back to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy because these are the characters all the others are dim copies of. Whatever loyalists may say about ST11 being superficial I haven't had so much fun watching a Trek movie since Wrath of Khan. It's no surprise that Wrath of Khan turned out as it did because Paramount kicked Roddenberry off of artistic input after Star Trek: the Motionless Picture.

  6. Wenatchee,

    I have to say, Khan is still my favorite Star Trek movie. I mean, can you ever beat the look on Khan's face as it transforms from the smug to the "Oh noes!!!1!" when the shields go down.

    But ST11 is my second favorite now.

  7. I finished watching ST11, and I'm a bit confused. I need to watch it again methinks.

    It's a well done film for sure.

    I like the Wrath of Khan the best as well. Those two nasty little creatures that he puts in the ears was very intense.

  8. ST2 still holds up because it caters least to the impulses of the franchise loyalist and because it actually has a theme that can resonate with non-Trek fans. There are plenty of other stories about aging, resentment, regret, and the death of friends but putting all of these themes and narratives into a Trek movie stands out precisely because these are the things that actually run counter the much discussed optimistic humanism of Trek.

    I have some friends who are hoping Javier Bardem can be cast as Khan. I thought Bardem made for a fun villain in No Country for Old Men (but I'm a sucker for the Coen's films). Whenever the next film comes out we can at least be assured that Urban and Quinto should do a good job with their respective roles. If Heroes keeps up its miserable free-fall Quinto should be grateful to trade in Sylar for more of Spock.