Saturday, May 30, 2009

Geek Obligations: STAR TREK (2009)

Well, as required by one nerd law or another, having seen the latest Star Trek movie, obviously the blogosphere (ridiculous word, that) is waiting with bated breath to hear what I thought of it. This despite not being that big a Star Trek fan (my Pull-Quote when it comes to Star Trek movies is that my favourite one is Galaxy Quest) and looking at the whole arguments about what is and isn't canonical with a certain detached amusement.

My review: It wasn't bad. There. Now that that's out of the way, I can talk about what was really on my mind while I watched it. That being that I was witnessing yet another in a long and necessary series of attempts to reinvigorate something for a newer younger audience.

It's an interesting line of inquiry--I continue to be fascinated with how things are remade and reexamined in the process of remaking them (and in this age of the Remake and Nostalgia Mining, I have no shortage of examples) Star Trek's been around in some form for 40+ years now, after all, and the gulf between where it all began and where it is now is pretty interesting, and seemed to me to be far more interesting fodder for a blog post than just my random thoughts about the movie--although there's some of that sprinkled amongst it, but this is mostly just rambling analysis--as we tend to do around here.

Star Trek was, like Gundam, an extremely successful failure. After crashing and burning on network TV, it found new life in syndication, grew it's cult audience over roughly ten years or so, and, in the wake of Star Wars, that audience was finally fair game.

Enter Trek's first stab at movie-hood: The Motion Picture. Also known as the Motionless Picture or, if you're me, The Most Pompous Goddam Movie Ever. It was a slow, ponderous think piece which attempted to be 2001-lite and Say Deep Things About The Human Condition. It did this by willfully trying to be as not fun as possible. For all Trek is lauded for being a progressive show and saying this about race relations and that about the futility of war in various episodes, what is willfully ignored in these accolades is that these little homilies were delivered so obvious and so leaden that any of the fun to be had with the show is smothered under moralizing so obvious and sanctimonious it makes one bleed from the ears.

Thus was the first movie--encountering a godlike force (apparently) bent on destroying all life, they found out "God" is one of us, a slob like one of us, and a stranger on the bus and that's as far as I care to push that allusion, thanks. Oh yeah--and everyone wore dental smocks. That was very off-putting also.

It doesn't really work, and not just because it willfully ignores what makes Trek work, but because it's completely out of step with the zeitgeist. While a 2001-esque think piece is a laudable goal, and inasmuch as there had been science fiction movies, most of them did fall into that "allegorical examination of the issues of today," (at least up to 1976) by the late 70's that no longer fit the zeitgeist.

Star Wars had changed all that. It was fast, kinetic, had a sense of humour about itself, and, while light on ideas, caught the zeitgeist for a whole generation in the same way that Trek had done with the previous generation--whatever process imprints these things strongly on a collective psyche happened again, and that's all there is to it, really. If Star Trek was going to speak to this generation, it would have to change its approach and try to find a way to stay relevant.

Relevance, and the argument that someone (and something) old can still be of value, are a thread carried through (to greater or lesser extent and effect) the next five movies. If one is disposed to read things in a certain way, Kirk struggling with living past his moment of glory or the Enterprise being put out to pasture is itself a meta-textual commentary on Trek's relevance in a world that's largely set side sci-fi for space opera.

Meanwhile, as this is going on, Star Trek has found a way to, if not confront Star Wars on its own turf, create something that can reach out to a larger audience than the 60s-era diehards. Looking back, Star Trek: The Next Generation, shouldn't really have worked--more often than not it's far too full of its own sanctimony and pomposity at times, and is all too often willing to slave the story to some scientific problem or artificial jeopardy rather than create conflict because In The Future Everyone Gets Along. It wasn't always the case, but looking back on some of those episodes . . .well, you just cringe.

Cringeworthy in hindsight they may be, Next Generation not only made its studio a lot of money, it provided a launching point for a whole new outgrowth of the franchise. Next Generation begat Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and Next Generation also begat four more movies for the franchise.

Unfortunately, only one of them's even remotely good. First Contact works--barely--because it's a fairly bulletproof premise (a zombie movie on the Enterprise) and some genuinely creepy moments (the Borg's rather literal take on Data's desire to be human) overwhelm the weaker bits.

TNG's inaugural movie, Generations, was, unfortunately, more of an exemplar of a TNG movie--it's all rather safe, and all rather half-baked. You may know Generations better as The One Where Kirk Dies Diving For The TV Remote (which was an early warning, I suppose that Ron Moore doesn't know how to write suitable closure for anything and Brannon Braga can't write period) or Longer TNG Episode, part 1 of 3. Insurrection continued the rather by-the-numbers Longer TNG Episode formula and was endemic of something that was happening with the franchise as a whole.

Basically, they were spinning their wheels and playing it safe. One tuned into Trek (Deep Space Nine excepted) and were reasonably sure they'd get the same thing every week with the serial numbers changed. Moreover, there began to be a pronounced and inescapable obsession with past continuity that ultimately same to a head with the final season of Enterprise, which might as well have been subtitled "Star Trek Fanfiction Theatre."

Needless to say, things hit something of a dead end. Maybe it was the continued preaching to the converted, maybe it was just the numbing grind of so much Star Trek being on non-stop for nearly 20 years. Maybe it was just that Nemesis is an awful awful movie, but Trek was put on the shelf for a time and everyone generally went back to the drawing board.

And we find ourselves right back where we started--the new Star Trek works less as a movie than as a curious case of trying to have your cake and eat it too. Functioning both as a justification for restarting continuity (usually a story engine doomed to fail) and a fresh start, and mostly succeeds.

The new movie by and large jettisons the Big Idea stuff of years past--there's some talk of destiny and living up to your potential, but primarily the new Trek is an action movie, and fairly revels in its Boy's Adventure devil-may-care attitude.

The director, J.J. Abrams, spoke before the movie that he was more predisposed to Star Wars when he was young, and that predilection shows, and shows most clearly, in our hero. James Kirk is, in the movie, pretty much Han Solo by other means. Never in any real jeopardy from frame one, Kirk strides through the movie confident and cocksure, and his attitude sets the tone of the movie.

The idea of younger actors stepping into the shoes of venerable SF iconic characters could have been a problem (and, if we're honest, it doesn't always work--Chekov was really only in the movie doing stupid things because Chekov was in the original and did very stupid things) but it's negotiated by the big three (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy)'s actors giving performances inspired by but not imitative of the original actors. It's initially somewhat odd, but it just about works, and goes a long way towards giving this Trek its own voice and sense of forward motion.

It doesn't always work, though. Like the original TV series, 2009's Trek is very much of it's time--there's a juddery handheld camera, random bursts of slow motion, and that oh-so-tired "let's drop all the sound out except the score so you know how poignant and tragic this all is." Moreover, it seems like action sometimes grows less out of the story's needs and more because they wanted an action sequence every few minutes.

And Nero is the most ephemeral and insubstantial villain I've seen in a movie since Slimer from the first Ghostbusters movie (and he had the excuse of being a ghost) It may well be time to admit that Trek seldom does individual villains well (especially when it comes to the movies) and this doesn't exactly break that streak.

This wasn't bad, but was very puzzling: There's a lot of water in this movie. It's very moist. It's mystifying, especially in the case of Nero's torture chamber/wading pool.

But the jeopardy Nero brings is more of a backdrop for what does work--how the characters come together and interact and ultimately gel into a coherent unit. It's also about cool space battles, which, naturally the film has in spades and delivers very well.

On the whole, it's a very satisfying movie. As a fresh start, it's certainly promising, but so much of this movie was spent setting up the moment where the keys to the car are handed over (metaphorically speaking) that really it's the follow-up to this movie that will determine whether this reboot is actually a fresh start, an Ultimate-style "old wine in new bottles" thing, or whether, after years and years, maybe Star Trek's day is past and it's going to join the similarly-hot-at-one-time-but-now-irrelevant Planet of the Apes franchise in the bin.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

To be honest, my whole reason for going to that movie was because I wanted to see Trekkies have epileptic fits about how "wrong" everything was. And that didn't really happen, because - as you pointed out - this is the only remake I can think of that actually provided a plot-related justification for its continuity reboot.

However, I can't help wondering whether Paramount's shot itself in the foot: on the one hand, they've placated the old-school fans - yes, Khaaaaaan still happened, just in another universe - but on the other hand, rather than be perceived as the new, definitive Trek, "nuTrek" is now just another alternate universe. At best, it's viewed as an off-shoot of that 40+-year-old franchise, an extension rather than a beginning.

But I agree that this film isn't the standard by which we should judge Trek 2.0 - now that they've gotten the obligatory world-building out of the way, they don't have to interface with Trek 1.0 anymore. What they'll do with that freedom remains to be seen, and that'll be the real test.

Kazekage said...

Yeah, I was kind of waiting for that inevitable raising of hell from the Trekkies myself, but it seems rather muted (then again, I haven't been to TrekBBS yet--they're always pissed about something) and probably the finessed reboot defused a lot of that.

Well, the thing now is what do you do with it? If Paramount really pushes this as This Is Where Trek's Going Now, then it'll feel a little less like an offshoot. How they'll do that when comics racks groan with various Trek offshoots . . .well . . .I'm not sure.

I think they left it in an interesting enough place to where I'm prepared to give the next installment a chance. The thing is, it was a very strong start, the characters are there, but there doesn't seem a clear way ahead.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I suppose we should give credit where it's due: JJ Abrams isn't the brightest crayon in the box, but he certainly seems to know how to diffuse potential fan-rage landmines.

And what about the various novel lines? They're still putting out TOS/TNG/DS9 books on a regular basis, and I haven't heard of any plans to incorporate nuTrek into that...

To be fair, I doubt they thought that far ahead; their primary concern was probably just getting the reboot off the ground.

Kazekage said...

And with Trekkies, for crying out loud, so that's even more amazing a feat.

Yeah . . .I mean, I think IDW did a comic tie-in but that's all I've heard about. I haven't really seen any non-fiction tie-in books that might start the process of identifying nu-Trek with Trek proper in the public eye.

True, and apparently a lot of their lead time was shortened by the Writer's strike, but hopefully, now that it's proven, they're taking a longer view.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

You think they should let him take a crack at "Star Wars"? Or are the Lucas-inflicted wounds still too fresh?

Still too soon to say, which is why I hope Paramount transfers it back to TV - cementing the new status quo requires consistent visibility and they'll have a better chance of doing that with a series than films set at three or four-year intervals.

And I very much hope they won't be taking the Kirkman Approach of just swapping in Chris Pine for William Shatner and casting, I don't know, Benjamin Bratt as Khaaaaaaan...

Kazekage said...

I think it's best for all of us if Star Wars lies fallow for a little bit so we can remember why we missed it again. It's getting to be not unlike Star Trek was at its nadir in terms of being hatefully overexposed.

It would be nice, but really, with TV as sectionalised as it is, could Star Trek fly on TV now? The networks are way too cautious for anything that expensive and the CW and UPN pretty much killed the syndication market, so really, where do you go with it? The whole movie-every-few-years paradigm isn't idea, but really, what other choice do they have?

Yeah . . .I am slightly nervous that we may be in for some stunt casting in the sequel, as well. Hopefully, as much care as with the casting on the regulars will be done this time for the sequel's villain this time.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Given that the sum output in the last five years has been one animated series and one film, being so burnt out so quickly is quite an accomplishment. Meanwhile, the Expanded Universe novels have apparently reached about forty or fifty years into the future. Granted, they've made their fair share (and perhaps more) of mistakes along the way, but at least that version of the universe is going somewhere.

Ideally, the movie's success would translate into ratings strong enough to justify a large budget... but you're right, given the recent genre failures across network TV, it probably wouldn't work out properly anyway.

Of course, realistically speaking we'd do well to steel ourselves for the next blow. It is, after all, popular now (again): something is going to get screwed up. :)

Kazekage said...

Well, that's in addition to the hangover from the Prequels, mind you, so there is a fair amount of time to tack onto that. And yeah, while the EU books aren't what they were, that they've been willing to take any chances at all puts them well above the franchises more public face.

It might, but then you run the risk of the actors from the movie not carrying over to TV (it's still seen as a step down) and then you either recast again (to potentially diminishing returns) or spin something off and then you're back to diluting things again, yeah?

Well, entropy is inevitable, yeah? The best that can be hoped for is that the succumbing to entropy is a ways off and maybe it'll go off in new directions before they get stale again.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Although apparently it's easy enough to go too far in the other direction, as I've learned that two of the three Solo kids are now dead, along with Mara Jade (finally!) and most of the supporting cast from the films and the Zahn trilogy (ie: Ackbar, Mon Mothma, Fey'lya). Not quite sure why that seemed to be a good idea, since the death of the younger generation puts that twit Luke front and center again.

Quite. But most of the actors came from TV anyway, didn't they? Quinto's on "Heroes", Urban spent a few years on "Xena", Pegg was on "Spaced" prior to "Shaun of the Dead"... it might not be as big a transition for the cast.

Guess we'll find out one way or another in good time. :)

Kazekage said...

Well, I suppose that is a bit much, but is that due to the fact that they've gone a bill kill-crazy to show us They're Not Messing Around, or does it feel weird because we're used to none of the core cast ever dying? Mind you, putting Luke front and center again misses the point to a large degree as well, as there's just going to come a point when you just have to let go of these character or decide they're immortal or something.

Maybe, but they might not be ready to go back to TV themselves, however. Usually the only actors comfortable with that are character actors.

Here's hoping their sequel's better than Transformers 2. Then again, it'd almost have to be, wouldn't it?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Hard to say... at first I thought the EU was subverting the traditional generational approach, in that it looks like The Next Generation is brighter and faster and stronger but they're all obliterated the second they take center stage - for comparison's sake, it'd be Picard's Enterprise getting blown up in the pilot episode because he's just not as awesome as Kirk. But then you're stuck with 60-year-old Luke who has, by now, become the Obi-Wan of his own story.

Hmm... yes, I see the problem there. Cautious optimism, then?

Aside from Shia LaBeouf being his usual adorable self, I very much doubt Transformers 2 had any redeeming qualities. Haven't seen it, mind you, but unless Michael Bay had a brain transplant in the last six months I doubt it matters.

Kazekage said...

Well, it depends on the author. In any EU-style story you're gonna get a few distinct types of stories--those that look at the established universe in a different way, those that want to beak the toys but don't have a great plan beyond that, and those that just want to do the Greatest Hits. More or less, the SWEU stuff seems to vacillate between those last two nowadays, hence Luke at 60 still being a main character and not much grown from his initial starting point in the EU.

A little never hurts. :)

SPOILER: It doesn't. I never saw the damn thing and I know it. And I must be less tolerant of Shia's charms, because between this and Indy 4 he's getting very good at being a bad part of a worse movie.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

As an interesting counterpoint, the Star Trek EU seems to have been up to all sorts of interesting things lately - apparently they've relaunched both TNG and DS9 as novel series continuing past their respective endpoints, and they recently had a linewide crossover that reportedly made the Dominion War look like two Shatner-era ships shooting at each other from opposite sides of a solar system.

That depends on how hard you crash if the film underperforms (creatively speaking, of course). :)

I'm somewhat fond of him... but then, I'm pleasantly disposed towards any teen actor who can actually, y'know, act. :) It's such a rare feature these days that it's worth pointing out.

Kazekage said...

I think I had the first 2 books of DS9's "Season 8 relaunch," actually--I remember them being fairly good but . . .off, somehow, so I never ended up picking up the later ones. I may look into this big crossover thingy you speak of. :)

Diana, we live in a world where, 25+ years after crashing and burning at the box office, friggin' Tron can get a sequel. All things are possible.

I suppose you've seen him in a movie wherein he better displays his chops. 'Fraid I haven't yet. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

There's always going to be a bit of dissonance with trans-media "relaunches" - although I was amused by the notion that after seven years, Ro Laren finally arrived at DS9. Not that Nana Visitor didn't do a phenomenal job as Kira, but I would've liked to see Ro develop further.

Tron? TRON is getting a sequel? Are you serious? Wh... wha... When was this? How did I miss the Tronny celebrations?

Well, he was the only bright spot in "Constantine", so there's that. :)

Kazekage said...

Well, I suppose it was, but I can't quite figure out why I never thought she brought anything to DS9, really. I always saw her character as being proud of her home but never able to go back for one reason or another (it's one of the few things that explains and gives any poignancy to her joining the Maquis at the end of TNG, really) I know the role was prepared for her, but I never felt like we missed anything not having her here.

Yep. They showed the trailer at Comicon. For the second year in a row. Mind you, apparently they're also re-releasing The Black Hole for . . .wow, I couldn't tell you but I am totally going to both. Occasionally, I like to reward crazy behaviour. :)

That's the problem--The presence of Keanu in a John Constantine movie, especially as the lead, did not compute, and thus, to save myself from a brain crash, I declined to watch it. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I saw it as a missed opportunity because Kira's hostility towards the Federation wasn't based on experience; Ro had seen both Starfleet and the Maquis up close, so pitting her against Sisko would've made for a more interesting match, especially since they both had complicated relationships with Picard: Sisko's "nemesis" and the father figure Ro had failed, etc.

You're not worried about the Law of Diminishing Sequels?

As someone who sat through the dreck, trust me, you missed a whole lot of nothing. :)

Kazekage said...

I kinda thought Kira's annoyance at the Federation fit the initial concept of the show perfectly--to her, the Federation is just another occupying force, and that's something that would have been lost if you plug Ro into that same dynamic.

Much as I love Tron I'm under no illusions about the quality of the movie--it just happened to come along at the right time to blow my mind, so, frankly there's nowhere to go but up.

I think I used the time to sleep. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

It ultimately worked out well enough, but I think most viewers coming to DS9 from TNG would've been sympathetic towards the Federation at that point - we don't know enough about Kira (at first) to understand where she's coming from. With Ro's history, though, you figure she might've had a point.

Here's hoping it won't give you a Coronary of Annoyance. :)

I'm sure the movie in your dreams was a lot better than what actually saw the light of day...

Kazekage said...

True, but as the whole point of DS9 at first was to filter the viewers perception of the Federation through another point of view, so you kinda needed a strong counterweight to the Federation to carry that dichotomy off or at least until they had another idea.

Well, as I said, there's not much to screw up as it was, so what's the worst that could happen?

It had 100% less Keanu in it than real life, so yes. :)