Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek

What an interesting development. On the one hand, the new movie, explicitly a re-imagining of the Star Trek franchise, is a worthy heir to the legions of fans. And yet on the other, it really isn't.

For those folks who pay attention to such things, the curse of the odd-numbered Star Trek movies is a factor in my review. Fans know that the best Star Trek movies are the ones that are even-numbered. I don't think I've ever seen anyone try to analyze this phenomenon. But it is the even-numbered ones that contain the most action and heroics (think Wrath of Khan), containing the most stereotypical elements of what is commonly known as science fiction (especially as it applies in cinema). It's in space. Things blow up. The odd-numbered ones are thoughtful, and perhaps there is action, but not with the overwhelming megawattage and scenery-chewing as the even-numbered ones ("Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!"). And yet I think there could be a compelling argument that those thoughtful ones are the ones closest to what the original Star Trek series accomplished (whether intentional or not is an interesting question—I'm sure low budgets had a lot to do with not a lot of action…). And this new Star Trek definitely falls in to the category of heroic blow 'em up movie. But there sure isn't a lot of substance.

Slowly we're introduced to a range of characters that (usually) look like younger versions of the characters we've grown to love after 40 years of reruns and ongoing movies. And they seem to be written somewhat similarly: Kirk (Christopher Pine) is brilliantly instinctive, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is thoughtful and restrained, and so forth. But once the movie gets past the broad strokes of the characterizations into the details, these characters are subtly different. And yet the script is filled with passing references to the signposts of the cultural artifact that everyone is aware of one way or another. So while we have to deal with Spock having a girlfriend, we get the origin of McCoy's (Karl Urban) nickname, Bones. We also get him announcing that dammit, he's a doctor, not a physicist, to general guffawing in the audience. And while Uhura is a kick-ass heroine, unwilling to take guff from anyone, an away team of three shipmates dressed in individual uniforms of red, blue, and yellow go off…and guess which one dies. After a bit the winking acknowledgements of the previous history grow a little grating, at least to me. But then I also have spent years reading comic books where characters often get "reimagined" (the comics industry uses the term "retcon") but continue to use these allusions to the original subject matter in order to assure the reader/viewer that the franchise really hasn't gone so far from what made it great that we can't recognizes reflections or shadows of the original. And so the reimaginings have to walk the fine line between becoming something new and just a referential mess.

Star Trek balances on that thin line very well, generally. There is a feeling of unbound optimism about the movie that has been missing since the first movie back in the early 80s. These familiar characters, now freed from the weight of years of back-story have the potential to do new and interesting things. And yet, the writers and director have very carefully placed the movie in a way that makes it a well-built universe for new audiences to explore while remaining tied to the events of the original series (that's plural) and movies. And yet, it's still kind of hollow once you walk away from it, lacking the cultural and ethical considerations that helped the original series rise above mediocre fare. But, arguably, the modern audience hasn't the patience and savvy to appreciate that kind of thoughtfulness…at least not enough for the studio to recoup its expense (see The Fountain and Dark City for examples of thoughtful SF falling flat at the theatre). Face it, for modern audiences, going "BOOM" is part of the definition of science-fiction.

And truly Star Trek goes "BOOM" often and well, making it a fine action movie. The science generally hangs together pretty well, with only a few complete implausibilities, none of which are big enough to get in the way of the rocketing plot. And there really is no character development; the movie relies on the characters being recognized for their near-archetype, then entertains the audience by revealing the subtle differences, so the fans can feel smug in that they understand that there is a difference. Non-fans probably scratch their heads at the laughter that ripples through the audience at odd times, but nothing seems terribly out-of-place.

There's not much of a plot summary, the crew of the USS Enterprise comes together as an enemy with insanely powerful technology begins attacking first Federation ships and then important Federation planets. Eventually, they figure out that the enemy is from the future (the franchise timeline we have known up to this point) and has already begun changing the past (the retcon). None of this would be apparent to the characters in the story, or to the non-fans, if Leonard Nimoy didn't also travel to the past as Spock to give timely advice and a synopsis of what's happened off-screen. And then the disparate crew comes together, after Kirk proves his abilities as a leader, to defeat the enemy. The timeline has been mangled so far that it cannot be fixed and so everyone is starting over. Old stories never happened and may get reimagined, or the writers may decide to tell new stories. And the franchise gets what is probably a much-needed boost in activity and interest. And things go "BOOM" probably far more than they ever did in the series.

It's a fine new start and a fun, fluffy movie that costs more in admission than it does in thoughtfulness. It will be interesting to see in what direction the franchise now goes; reputedly a sequel is already in the works, and one can imagine a spate of new books. But like comic retcons, the true test is how long the new universe can remain separate from the one that went before. Lazy writers can easily recycle plots and ideas from the earlier versions, but that would slowly lead down a path where the product grows more and more inferior. It appears the creators are real fans of the franchise, so I hope they won't go that way. I'll surely see the sequels, but I really hold very little hope that the franchise will over grow as thoughtful as the original.

No comments:

Post a Comment