Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Nitpicker's Guide to Star Trek 2009 Part 2

The reason I brought up the whole idea of this franchise being more than entertainment is that, for me, that is the biggest sticking point in all of this.  Having entertainment is of course important.  You can have a deep concept, but if you don’t present it a way that’s interesting to an audience people won’t care.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture certainly has this issue.  The film has a high concept, and it’s less interesting than watching paint dry.  However, making something entertaining is, in my opinion, the surface layer of a project.  You can make a fun ride of a movie and then you make a fun ride of a movie that means something.  That a viewer can see multiple times and keep finding new things to think about, or different ways to view characters.  This film does not do that, the creators don’t even seem to consider that they should do that, and no where is that more noticeable than in the special features on the DVD of this film. I’m talking specifically about the “A New Vision” featurette. 

You take a look at that DVD extra and one of the first things anybody said was that we have to make the movie big, that it has to be a spectacle.  We have to make it big and loud, and in doing so they zoomed past the entire point of this franchise at warp 10.  I mean trekkies can get into fights about whether the re-mastered versions of the TOS episodes are better, or if they take away the charm of the series by having updated effects.  So simply having better explosions and more shots of the ships and things flying around does not a perfect Trek film make.

JJ Abrams talks in the extras about how he wishes the original show had more resources because they seemed so restricted by time and money.  That is true, but what seems to have been forgotten is that the show succeeded in spite of those obstacles.  Simply having more money and more time for this film does not guarantee success.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: The Final Frontier had the largest budgets of the original six movies and look how well they turned out!  

Then they talk about how the movies have to have a faster pace, to be accepted by a modern audience, to be like Star Wars.  Umm hate to remind you guys but Star Wars came out in 1977.  You aren’t making a strong case for making this for a modern audience if that’s your reference point.  Then Abrams says he loves the pacing of Empire and Jedi.  Again those came out in 1980 and 1983, classics certainly, but not modern.  Also the pacing for Empire especially is certainly not the shake the camera, running through the halls, pacing that this film has.  In fact the clip they showed at the point, of the reaction shot of Kirk dropping his phaser on the drill, was something that the Star Wars prequels used constantly.  I must say Mr. Abrams drawing inspiration from those films is a bad, bad idea.  But I will give them credit, pacing is the only thing saving this film.  Because everything goes by so fast your brain takes a while to process what actually happened and it’s not until the ‘ice box moment’ if you will that things become clear.  The first time I watched this film I thought it was okay.  Nothing to write home about, but not horrible either.  It’s only upon reflection and re-watching that all the cracks started appearing.  To sum it by someone more well-spoken than I am:

“Because the appeal was so superficial it didn’t really last…With this film the most glaring problems with it are something that you really need to kind of think about, they’re not obvious on first viewing.  Instead you walk away with: okay silly little flick with a bit of action and romance, not what you wouldn’t expect.  It’s not until you start to see the problems that it all unravels.  And as it does the jokes seem more stale, until it can feel like the whole movie is just crashing and burning.”  

And that’s the way it really feels for me.  I mean not everything in this movie is a horrible abomination.  As I said in my first review changing it to a new universe was not necessarily bad, lazy I think, but not bad.  You can explore old events in new ways.  You can have different characters interact with each other in ways they didn’t get to in the older show and movies.  But this movie has none of that.  We have a romance between Spock and Uhura merely to titillate the viewing audience.  We have Scotty there as a comic relief character, with a useless sidekick no less.  Sulu and Chekov are fun to watch, but that’s about what they do not themselves as characters.  And I’ve already ranted about Kirk enough.  There is no real attempt to explore how this universe is different from what has come before.  There is no attempt to explore themes that the other movies didn’t. 

To be frank there is nothing new here, and there could be.  We could have explored how Kirk looks at problems differently than Kirk Prime did, because of their different upbringings.  There could have been a good mining on the theme of loss and how we should handle it.  We could have even had commentary on how society responds to a terrorist attack, because that’s what Nero’s attack on the Kelvin basically was *hint hint*.  In short there was a chance to have something besides just a joy ride here, and it was all ignored for action and having money for effects. There was apparently no real attempt that I can see to reach all the other layers that can be offered when making a film. 

When the production staff talk about this film they all seemed focused on the superficial aspects of what makes a movie, and about what makes a great star trek movie.  All the talk about the vision is about pacing and look and effects.  There is no talk about theme, character exploration, or plot.  Nimoy mentions that JJ Abrams does big stuff and character stuff well, but I’m sorry I don’t see that here.  I haven’t seen any of his other projects so I don’t know if Abrams does better character stuff elsewhere, but so far I’m not impressed.    

However, since I have said that I don’t like a lot of focus on effects in movies, especially CGI, let me say that I do admire Abrams for putting in quite a few practical effects here; for using locations, and actual working sets.  They get that it's important to have tangible things on the screen to give ‘weight’ to what the audience is looking at.  If I didn’t find the lens flare and the shaky camera so debilitating to that idea I’d appreciate it even more.

Then we get talk of how the deliberately made more lens flares, why?!  Lens flare everywhere do not add to the realism of the movie! Why did you take so much pride in making your film look like crap? 

“Star Trek in its best form was always a submarine warfare.” If we’re talking action sure, but Star Trek is not about action.  It’s about talking about society and the human condition.  You don’t need more ‘rock and roll’ in Star Trek you just have to have that rock and roll be meaningful and it isn’t.  We have to connect to a modern audience!  No you have to connect to an audience, and you don’t need to make the franchise so lopsided in its goals to do that.  If you want to make a Star Trek for a whole new generation fine, but then really push it!  Take risks and show the consequences of it.  Don’t just put a sloppy story on the screen, with under developed characters, and count on nostalgia to carry you the rest of the way.  I mean it’s really telling that the character I connect with the most is Spock Prime, because we actually take a moment to feel what the character is feeling and he gets to be proactive.  

Now since I praised the character let me take a moment to mention his actor.  Now Leonard Nimoy is a wonderful actor and knows the importance of having a strong story to make a project work.  So why did he agree to this project?  He said he liked the script and I was totally at a loss as to why, but then I remembered he would have been looking at an earlier version of it and in my opinion that earlier version, from the example we have of deleted and cut scenes, was a much better movie than we what was presented to us as the movie going public in May 2009. 

One of the best deleted scenes was Kirk and Sam arguing with Frank before Kirk steals the car.  We get to see that yes Kirk is reckless, because taking the car on impulse is a boneheaded move in hindsight, but that he also has good motives behind what he does.  That the car was his father’s and that he’d rather see it at the bottom of a quarry than sold off.  We get to hear from Frank that Jim Kirk is no one and thus get his desire later to want to captain the Enterprise.  In the bar later we would get that Pike has told Kirk that he is not no one that he can be someone special, not just as the son of George Kirk, but as someone even better than he was.  We get to see that stealing the car was also his first real act of rebellion, and perhaps he started to live down to people’s expectations from then on.  If he didn’t follow ever order and do nothing but get good grades maybe his mother would be around more often, maybe Sam would come back.  That makes Kirk so relatable, so sympathetic, everything he should be.  Instead a scene that’s less than a minute long, but explains so much was left on the cutting room floor.

I think this is also true of the cut scene of Kirk apologizing to not-Gaila.  It shows that he is actually thinking about others and wants to apologize for his hurtful behaviour towards her.  We get to see that Kirk isn’t just a hothead, but that he does reflect on his actions, and feels remorseful if they hurt someone.  This is what we needed to see more of with Kirk.  Yes, a hero should certainly have flaws, but for Kirk we see only flaws and no good qualities, and thus I don’t want to watch him.

There are other scenes that allow for growth for other characters too.  The argument between Sarek and Amanda after Spock fights the bullies continues the idea of Spock’s struggle with his duality.  With that in place we get resolution in the transporter room scene later and see that Sarek now agrees with his wife that Spock will always be half-human; that Sarek loves him for that; and that those human desires can indeed find expression.  

And obviously the scene with the Klingons capturing Nero makes him not look like a brooding idiot for sitting around doing nothing for a quarter of a century.  So why every scene that gave anyone, especially Kirk, some character growth and development was cut, and people thought the movie would be better for it is anyone’s guess.  Yes, we’re still missing a real theme for this movie, but at least that story layer for this film would have been much stronger; and I would have been willing to give the creators much more slack, and say, they had to get a lot accomplished in this movie to set up a proper universe and they’ll go more in depth with the characters and events in the following films.    

The only scene that does work okay being cut is Spock’s birth.  Yes, we lose a parallel with the building Kirk and Spock story, but it would have been jarring pacing wise to have that be the opening scene and I can see why it wasn’t included.

That leaves one other well-known deletion: the Shatner scene.  Now yes in the name of TOS fan Easter Eggs having him there would have been very cool, but that scene also gave the movie a capstone to the whole idea of it being a Kirk and Spock story.  Where Spock sees that hologram of Kirk Prime, and hears his words, he knows that to deny himself that journey, that home with Kirk, is to deny himself all the growth that they’ve had and could continue to have.  Have that with a scene or two of Kirk and Spock connecting over their shared sense of loss and we might have had an epic movie on our hands, but we don’t.   

What I think we have is a generic blockbuster.  It has some action, it has effects, it has characters we’re supposed to recognize and cheer for.  But there’s no theme here.  There’s no push to have something really new for the franchise.  There is no focus on society or the human condition.  In short there is no Star Trek here, and there could have been.  The film is supposed to be Kirk and Spock’s story and both these characters suffer loss in the story, as does the villain.  Right there is a theme to be explored in how each character deals with that, and perhaps what we as audience might take away from their actions.  Some of the things brought up in deleted scenes about how the characters are different, how this universe is different hold amazing possibilities, and they’re all just left there.  There is a nugget of good stuff buried under all the dreck, and that just makes it all the more frustrating to see it wasted for a roller coaster action movie made in the name of the all mighty dollar.

Now the sequel still has the chance to turn this runaway train of fail around.  But since they already had to extend the release date because they couldn’t get a script done, and getting all defensive about how they had to break from continuity to make the first film work.  So, good luck dealing with the continuity you now set up for yourselves guys.  And, after holding out on using a lot of digital camera work in the first film, to possibly converting it to 3D for the next release I’m not holding out hope that Star Trek 2 is going to be successful at that.

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