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.