Saturday, May 09, 2009

Star Trek: The Good, The Not-So-Good, and the Unforgivable


I saw the new Star Trek movie tonight in glorious Regal IMAX. Obviously not every movie is designed for IMAX, and I'm not sure this one was - though it may have had to do with the fact that I was forced to sit rather close. I'll give it a push on that one.

When the movie ended, I sat in my seat a long while watching the ending credits. I wasn't sure where my mind was and needed some time to wind down and think about what I'd just seen.

Star Trek, for me, has been a defining - perhaps the defining fictional and cultural entertainment icon of my life. I don't want to imply it's more important than it is - I fully understand, more than a number of fans, where fiction ends and real life begins. It's simply been my favorite story and fictional milieu since I sat in my dad's lap and watched syndicated reruns of "Shore Leave". Since I bought my first VCR specifically to tape the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Since reading countless books, watching countless hours of episodes spanning six different series versions, ten movies...

Like a lot of fans, I feel a sense of ownership in the story. Not the "franchise" - that's a business term, something for money-crunchers to exploit. It's a story, first and foremost. In the beginning the story of one man and how he deals with the world. Over time it became more than that as more people became involved. It spread to a story of three men and their friendship, and how it was a microcosm for all of us. Then about more people, and more people - human and alien, machine and hologram - and how they each represented a piece of humanity. As I said, fans have put a lot of time and effort into enjoying this story and have certain personal expectations from a new chapter in that story.

Let me make one thing clear, however - we are not "owed" anything. The producers of the show, from Gene Roddenberry to Harve Bennett to Rick Berman and now to J.J. Abrams are in charge. Paramount Pictures owns the story, and has the right to not just pick who they want to decide how that next chapter goes, but to make it go any dang place or direction they want it to. We are not "owed" a story that pleases each fan's idea of what's next. I, for one am grateful the powers-that-be decided to make a new film. Like it or not, that's the next chapter and we as fans have to decide whether we like it or not...whether it fits our own personal idea of what the next chapter should be. So don't think that, as a result of my loyalty and appreciation over the years that I feel I'm "owed" a good chapter. I can form opinions and emotional reactions to it, but they're mine and mine alone, and shouldn't be misconstrued as saying it's "bad" or "good".

So, take my opinions as they are - my observations of how I felt after watching this latest installment of "Star Trek"....

The Good
  • The Cast - The cast, from top to bottom, was fantastic. I told a co-worker of mine this afternoon before I saw the show, that I anticipated the success of the movie, to me, would hinge on the performance of Chris Pine. Would he be able to portray the true spirit of a (young) Captain Kirk? Almost as important, would he be able to capture some of that young Shatner-esque "rogue-ness" that endeared Kirk to so many fans? I am one who believes in a number of ways the two aspects, the personality and the actor, are inseparable in defining who James Kirk is. And, in my opinion, Pine nailed it. Excellent work. I would've liked to have seen a little more of that half smile Shatner used when Kirk was, say, "laughing at the superior intellect" of Khan since the character would likely have had that mannerism since he was a young man but that was an acting choice and I respect it.

    Similarly, the personalities and acting of Zachary Quinto/Spock and Karl Urban/McCoy brought forth exactly who those characters were, and channeled their respective original portrayers' interpretations well (Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley).

    The secondary crew - Uhura, Sulu, Chekov and Scotty - had less screen time, and at times bordered on caricaturing their own characteristics, but nothing too distracting. When all seven began working together, as a crew, in their familiar positions, it was magical.

    Fantastic casting choices, excellent work. Best part of the movie, and its saving grace - despite what I may have to say later... (cue ominous music)

  • Special Effects, Design - The Big E was gorgeous, and close enough to the original design for the differences to be unimportant. The money shot of her rising from the mist of Titan in front of Saturn screamed "WINDOWS BACKGROUND" and I intend to find a high-res shot somewhere ;)

  • Story Parts - I use "parts" here to highlight some of the incidental scenes and moments that stood out. The Kobayashi Maru test, and all that went with it. The bar fight. The Orion girl roommate. The fight on the firing platform. Kirk with big hands, nausea and numb tongue (!). Spock's refusal to join the Vulcan Science Academy. His final conversation with Sarek. The kiss in the elevator. Scotty in the tubes. Kirk and Spock's fistfight. The movie was positively littered with moments that just shone. Character bits both new and well-loved combine to make up for...ok, later..later... These scenes, scattered throughout the movie showcased the acting talents and character moments for all the players.

  • "Admiral" Archer and his Beagle - how many people caught that "Enterprise" series reference? Awesome ;)

The Not-So-Good

I really didn't see anything in the movie that was "bad", per se, with the exceptions later on, but there were a few things that don't go in the "good" category that stuck in my craw a bit. These, again, are things that pinged my Trek-loving sensors and may not have made any difference to anyone else...
  • Uniforms - While most Starfleet crew members wore variations of the familiar red/blue/green, the arrowhead emblems looked strangely..I don't know, empty. We're all used to seeing the star, circle and gear symbols inside the regular series emblems and here - nothing. Not even a solid color, just a black outline of a chevron. Weird. And at the end of the movie, in the commendation scene, I saw a Federation flag outside the window that had the familiar starburst command insignia. Did the uni's have anything in the final scene? Maybe they awarded them after that point. Just odd. Also the tunics didn't seem to fit all that well at times. I know, pick, pick, pick... But it was great to see them on the big screen in those combinations again.

    The Starfleet Academy uniforms and the Admiralty - surprisingly drab. Maybe a holdover from the drab blue of the Archer Enterprise era?

  • Reimagined Technology and Design - The interior decks of the Enterprise, especially Engineering. Hand Phasers. I know you can't go back and use identical 60's sets and props, just because that's what was there. It worked on the small screen for DS9's "Trials and Tribbelations" and Enterprise's "In a Mirror, Darkly" but for a big screen treatment, updates were necessary. But did they have to be redone that differently? Phasers fire long beams, not short bursts like stormtrooper blasters. Engineering doesn't have giant radioactive-labeled tanks. The hangers aren't full of 500 shuttlecraft. Oh, screw it. Enough with the quibbling.

  • Scotty's little...friend - Played by everybody's favorite Oompa-Loompa, Deep Roy. What the hell was that all about, anyway? I'm still puzzled and a little bit scared who or what that thing was. It looked like he became the Enterprise's mascot at the end - something you might see Penny Robinson taking as a pet.

  • Hanging By a Thread - Three, count'em, three times Jim Kirk was hanging for dear life from a deadly precipice. That's two too many in one movie for one character, really. I've heard of cliff-hangers, but really. Just an odd plot choice.

The Unforgivable

Ok, if you loved the pants off this movie, you may not like the things I'm about to talk about. But bear with me, because, like I said above, I did like it. I liked it a lot. But these things...well, be patient and you'll see.
  • The Villain - Hands down, Nero was the absolute worst villain in Trek history. Certainly the worst of the movie versions, and that's saying something with the likes of the dry Ru'afo from Insurrection and the campy Shinzon from Nemesis. Nero had no character, no motivation, no personality, nothing at all to define him as an antagonist. Certainly not as the prime villain for the movie. Heck, V'ger had more character than he did, and the humpback whales from The Voyage Home had more personality.

    Nero did nothing the whole movie except spit, yell, threaten, whine and moan about the "wrongs" done to him by Spock, the Federation, his mother, his third grade teacher on Romulus, and the girl that dumped him at the junior prom.

    Part of this I blame the actor, Eric Bana. But in great fairness, I didn't see anything given to him - any dialogue, movement, action - from the script that gave him room for any character depth besides a blind, vague need for revenge. In fact, he and Shinzon, aside from the pointed ears, could have switched places fairly easily. And Shinzon had twice the depth Nero did. In fact, all the Romulans on the ship looked like Nero, and at times I had trouble telling which was him and which was a random crew member.

    But the need for revenge - blind and vague it was. Whatever true motivation the character had for the deeds he did, was completely lost on me. Let me see if I got this straight... Old Spock, as Ambassador on Romulus, offered to help the government "defuse" the nova that threatened his homeworld. Spock took off in the super-cool swirly Vulcan ship with the "red matter" to try and create a singularity, that would counteract the blast effect of a supernova. But he was apparently too late, and the sun exploded before the red matter could be used, and destroyed Romulus.

    That's it? That's the big motivation for the blinding hatred for Spock and all of Vulcan? Because the Federation "wasn't fast enough"? Seems to me Spock and The Federation were the only ones actually trying to do anything - I didn't see that many Romulans lifting a finger to help themselves.

    It's not just that it isn't a logical conclusion to draw, to equate the UFP's inadequacy to contain the threat with a need for revenge on another planet full of sentient beings, but it isn't even an illogical conclusion. There's no rational or even irrational reason for Nero to blame Spock or the UFP for Romulus' destruction! Oh sure, he could be a bit pissed. And people who just saw their planets destroyed can't really be expected to act totally rationally, and to blame someone else - but Nero, by all accounts, is an intelligent person. He's the captain of the mining vessel, and not an unhinged genetic madman like Khan. Nor a man lured by the seductive call of the Nexus like Soran from "Generations". The lust for revenge that would cause any person to, a) destroy a Federation starship out of hand (the USS Kelvin), b) capture Spock and maroon him on an ice planet so he could watch Vulcan die, and c) actually destroy Vulcan and try to destroy Earth, simply doesn't match what was done to him, personally - fairly or unfairly perceived.

    And when your villain has no believable motivation for the evil he does... he's just evil. And just evil is very, very, very boring.

    Nero was a very, very, very boring villain.

    I got the idea that if Spock sat down with Nero for a few minutes and explained, logically, the error of his ways and where to productively turn his feelings of loss and grief, all this unhappy business of bad villainry could have been avoided. But he's just a Vulcan, and not a miracle worker.

    To have this much time to come up with a good villain, with true motivation and a real diabolical scheme and not deliver - unforgivable.

  • Changing the Past - And here's the second big thing. Star Trek, as we know it, is now radically different.

    Irrevocably altered.

    All that history? From "The Cage" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before" to Nemesis is now gone. Wiped out. Finished. Kaput. Nada. Wiped clean.

    Old Spock said it himself, and the crew figured it out - alternate reality.

    Things were humming along nicely until Nero emerged from the singularity. Ok, fine - time travel is a given in Star Trek and always handled carefully. Well, mostly carefully ("I grew a new kidney!! That man gave me a pill and I grew a new kidney!!!").

    I can accept the emergence of Nero's ship dramatically altering the life and death of George Kirk, and altering the circumstances of his birth. Unintended consequences happen when people travel through time (do you hear that Damon and Carlton??? Do you?? Do you??? Whatever happens, did not ALWAYS happen!!).

    But Vulcan was destroyed. And Amanda Grayson, Spock's mother, was killed.

    Let's just think about that. Vulcan, the second most important planet in the entire Star Trek milieu, is gone.

    No more "Amok Time". No more Masters of Gol and the big Kolinahr statues. No more steps of Mount Seleya. No more ShiKahr, sehlats, le-matyas, lirpas, An-woon. Likely no more T'Pau (or was that her among the Vulcan survivors?), T'lar or T'Sai. No more Stonn or T'Pring. No more Sonak. Possibly no more Sybok (I know, big loss). No more Saavik! Or Tuvok! All the Vulcan characters and ancestors of said characters, if from 24th century - likely gone. 10,000 saved out of a planet of 6,000,000,000. Poof. An entire chunk of Trek history, lore and culture... erased from the story like a typo.

    Heck, we almost saw as much of Alderaan, overall, as we now have of Vulcan.

    Let me step back here a bit. In stories, bad things happen. Bad things happen to motivate the good characters to improve their goodness. Or overcome their badness. Without Darth Vader, there is no Luke Skywalker. As a character. Without the Joker, there is no Batman. Again, as a character. The villains and bad things in our lives, and especially in the lives of fictional characters, are there to show how they overcome them and grow. To risk mixing two franchises, losing Alderaan was a big motivator in Princess Leia's drive to defeat the Empire. If Vader and Tarkin hadn't destroyed it, she might not have been motivated and driven enough to fully fight back. So our adversities make us who we are.

    But...but.. it's Vulcan....!!!

    When you write a story, you have control of what happens to each and every character. In any real person's life, seemingly random events can happen to change the course of our lives. A car goes one way instead of another and rear-ends you. Five minutes earlier and the person who was about to offer you a great new job wouldn't have left. Grocery store is out of cookies, so you choose crackers. Two airliners shatter the peacefulness of a crisp autumn day in New York City to change the world. Things happen, random events occur all the time to affect our lives.

    But when writing fiction, you have the power to control that.

    If I write a story to send a Terminator back to the late 1700's, realistically (if such a thing exists) he would shoot the entire Continental Congress delegation, and likely the population of all Thirteen Colonies looking for John Conner. But I can write in that, luckily, John arrived just before the Terminator did and blows his metallic head off before the nasty robot dude can blow away John Adams. I did it, I made it up. It probably couldn't happen that way, but since I own the world in my head, and on the paper, I make the rules. If the plan only has a 0.00001% chance of success, then By Golly we're going for it! And it, against all odds, will likely work.

    What chance, really, Force or not, did Luke and the X-Wing pilots have to fire that proton torpedo that destroyed the Death Star? None. Zero. There's no way they should've gotten close to the surface, much less down the trench. But George wanted him to be a hero, so he was.

    But, the thing is here, you have to think of the repercussions to the story. In this case, the greater story.

    Nero obviously had superior technology. What he did makes sense from the point of view that's given to us. In fact, he shouldn't have failed to destroy Earth, either. Spock's abduction of the future Vulcan ship, and subsequent escape, were ridiculously easy - that's ok, if the story rides on it. But it didn't have to. Kirk and Sulu were able to disable the drilling platform - but too late! The hole was down to the core, and all Nero had to do was drop the bomb. Poof! Bye Bye Ol' Sandy.

    Vulcan, and Amanda Grayson didn't have to die to further the story. The Spock we all know and love, the one before this story happened, progressed just fine. Just like he should have.

    The Spock we've now ended up with, is very different.

    To lose your home planet, and six billion of your closest relatives - that's a big deal. It doesn't sit well with a person.

    Ask Nero.

    Ask Princess Leia.

    And to lose your mother prematurely, when before she lived to a ripe old (human) age - that's just cold.

    And on Mother's Day weekend, to boot.

    It changes them. The person they were, or were going to be - the Old Spock we saw is that person - is now gone, and can never come back. The new Spock, the Zachary Quinto Spock, is what we have now.

    If, by some strange chance, the crew one days reaches Sarpeidon again, will Spock fall for Zarabeth again, or will he let her be? Who knows - his entire worldview is now different. Not to mention his relationship with Sarek is now completely different. Old Spock's motivations for joining, and staying in Starfleet was based a great deal on the estrangement with his father. An estrangement that continued through the old series ("Journey to Babel") and wasn't really reconciled until the end of "The Voyage Home". And Sarek never fully addressed the feelings he had toward Spock and Amanda until the mindmeld incident with Picard 100 years later!

    So many things are now different, and while they were exciting and suspenseful and sad and heartbreaking for what they were, in the context of the movie, did anyone think about what this will do for Spock's character as we know it?

    You've effectively killed the Spock we really know. And unless you're Khan, that's unforgivable, too - because there's no Genesis Planet nearby to bail you out of this one.

Thanks for reading. Overall, I really liked the movie. The acting and characterization of the crew was wonderful. But the big problems I had with the villain and the story logic kept from making it a GREAT movie, and certainly not the best Trek movie. The record of "The Wrath of Khan" as best Trek movie ever, is safe for another year. Pop the corks, guys. You and the '72 Dolphins are in good company together.

Comments and questions are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant, Barry. Very well researched and written.

    I did not see the movie. Family members went and reported that Vulcan was destroyed. I steadfastly refused to see a movie with such a blatant, impossible change in the Star Trek story. I boycotted the second of these prequel movies as well, and will do the same for any subsequent ones. I'm just not going to do it.

    Sort of a time lag here between the original post and the comment, but that's cool. Better late than never. Once again, well written, Barry!