Monday, November 16, 2009

The M/C Review: 'Star Trek' BluRay delivers on every level

Toshi's no dope.

He is growing up in a sci-fi movie, and at the age of four, he treats technology that blows my mind with a casual "yeah, yeah, what else you got?" attitude that cracks me up. He knows what a BluRay is now. He knows that Daddy treats the DVDs a little more rough and tumble than he handles the BluRays. He knows that if something shows up on BluRay, most likely it's going to be for watching in Daddy's office, and that is something he really wants to get in on. As much as humanly possible.

So about four days after we saw the latest "Star Trek" film in a theater, an event which sort of changed his life, he started asking me about when the movie would show up at our house on BluRay. And asking. And asking. And asking. Because when you're four, you have nothing else to worry about. You're not thinking about the mortgage or what to do for your dissertation or insurance issues or anything else... you're fixated on when you'll have "Star Trek" in your house so you can watch it eighteen billion times a week.

This past week, an envelope arrived while he was at school with the "Star Trek" BluRay inside. I opened it, then decided to put the disc back in the envelope and wait for him to get home. When he did, my wife hid outside my office, and we arranged the blinds so we could record his reaction when I handed him the envelope so he could see what was inside. When he's much older and he asks me why he has so much trouble talking to girls, I'll show him his spontaneous geeksplosion upon recognizing the "Star Trek" cover as a way of answering that question. This acorn feel pretty close to the tree, so to speak.

Now, four days later, I've been through the entire two-disc set, and I have to say this is one of the best special editions of a Hollywood blockbuster that I've seen in a while. Two things have happened recently in regards to extra features on home video releases. First, the studios have cut way back in terms of what they'll pay for and how far they're willing to go to make a special edition truly special. Second, audiences have gotten so numb to how much extra content there was for so long that I think a lot of people just stopped watching them. This BluRay serves as a reminder of just how much fun it can be to not only revisit a movie that really works, especially one that's been given a completely top-notch transfer, but also how exciting it is to watch a group of professionals at the top of their game as they put together something they genuinely love.

Revisiting the movie with Toshi, and then again with my co-writer who never managed to see it in the theater, I am struck anew by just how difficult a job Abrams and his crew had in rebooting this particular series, and how graceful they were in doing this seemingly impossible thing. But then watching all the extras, it seems like they never viewed it as impossible, and by simply putting their heads down, trusting each other and the process, and by jumping in with near-boundless enthusiasm, they almost make it look easy, like anyone could have done it.

The commentary on the feature film is by JJ Abrams, Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci, Damon Lindelof, and Bryan Burk. This is the core Bad Robot group of guys, the ones who broke the story together and who are the primary architects of this new version of the franchise, and listening to them together as they talk about the film, I can see why they all work so well together. They're all bright, articulate, and driven by the same basic aesthetic of what's cool and why. And when they were tasked with bringing "Star Trek" back from the dead, their most important job was to make it cool again, and that's where they got it right. For "Trek" to become a major commercial force again, they needed to sell it to people who have never seen a "Trek" movie before, people who have never even considered it. And again... they got it right, and they did it without disrespecting the material. They may have turned up certain elements, but they didn't have to sacrifice the core things that make "Trek" what it is. If anything, they gave them the spotlight, emphasized them, and that's the reason it pulls off that trick of working for old fans and new alike.

And, yes, I'm aware that there are many self-proclaimed Trekkers who hate this film. Oh, well. Change is scary. It's not 1969 anymore, and Shatner and Nimoy are just plain old. Time marches on, and "Star Trek" can either be a museum piece, up on a shelf in a form that they approve of, or it can be a living, breathing, ongoing concern. I don't believe for a second that Gene Roddenberry would want "Star Trek" to be done, finished, wrapped up just because the cast aged out of it. He dealt in big archetypes, and he built this story as a way of setting up an ongoing mission, one that provided as many storytelling opportunities are there are stars in the sky. If you can't handle the idea that there are going to be more interpretations of "Trek", then I'd submit you're not a fan of the material... you're just a fan of one version of it. Which is fine, but it doesn't give you moral superiority over someone whose world view is more expansive than yours.

Disc two has an embarrassment of riches to offer, and the behind-the-scenes documentaries, all ten of them, are tremendous fun, and genuinely illuminate the process on this particular film. There are so many moments that stand out that it's hard to even list them. I was moved by the meeting between Nichelle Nichols and Zoe Saldana, and by Saldana's comment to the original Uhura: "Thank you for opening all the doors I am now able to walk through." It's equally emotional to watch Zach Quinto and Leonard Nimoy working together, and to hear Quinto explain that there are some things that Nimoy told him about the character that he can't share with anyone, things that belong only to them as Spock. I thought it was interesting to see Abrams on-set, actually shaking the camera magazine himself because he knows the specific rhythm he wants to see in his footage, standing right there over the shoulder of his cameraman beating out this herky-jerky pulse while they shoot.

Talking about the casting process and why each choice was made shows that these producers are trying to build a franchise that lasts here, and I think they got exceptionally lucky. I've said before that I think Chris Pine is a movie star, and watching him work, he seems like he's got the soul of a ridiculous goofball locked in the body of a football hero. He's also the lynchpin that holds the rest of the cast together. Everyone's got their part to play in the dynamic, and Pine is the thing they all bounce off of. He and Quinto and Urban, as Kirk and Spock and Bones, have to click, and all three of them work perfectly together. They're hilarious, but they're also grounded and emotionally honest, and it's interesting how the more honest they play the emotional stuff, the more permission they have to get absurd at certain moments. For one film to contain both the sequence where Kirk gets balloon hands from a vaccine and also the sequence where Spock loses his mother is a tricky balancing act, tone-wise.

There are roughly fourteen minutes of deleted sequences on disc two, and I think the deletions were all wise choices in the end. Before seeing the Klingon prison sequence, I thought it was something that was missing, something that would clarify the 25 years that Nero and his crew spent waiting for Spock Prime to show up, but now that I've seen it, I don't think it makes much difference. The film works despite a few narrative hiccups because of the pacing, and the removal of these scenes is a big part of why that pacing works like such a machine.

There are features on the spaceship designs in the film, on the way the aliens were created, and on the work Ben Burtt did designing the sound effects for the film, which is one of the best on the disc. I really liked the piece about trying to maintain confidentiality on the film, although it does sort of make me snicker. I've learned one thing for sure during my time in Los Angeles, and that is that there is no such thing as a professional secret in this town. Personal secrets? Absolutely possible. But professional? Can't happen. Anything that involves as many people as a feature film is going to leak secrets inevitably, and all you can hope to do is stem the flood a bit.

More than anything, I walked away from this set more impressed than ever with JJ Abrams, and not just as a writer or a director, but as ground zero in something very cool that's going on with genre film in general right now. He takes a bit of a beating from some fanboys over his TV background, but that's just silly. TV is in no way a "lesser" media these days. It offers different opportunities for storytelling over a longer period of time, and if anything, you want a guy with that background to steer this franchise into the future. More than just being an exceptional producer and filmmaker, though, he comes across as a grounded, normal guy who knows just how extraordinary it is to be able to do what he does for a living.

In the interest of full disclosure, and also to illustrate just how decent Abrams is, allow me to close with a personal story. If Abrams has earned the right to dislike anyone working in this business, it's me. After all, I'm the guy who torpedoed his "Superman" script while it was in development, and I've made it a habit to break stories about his films even when I wasn't supposed to. And despite that, on the few occasions we've spoken by phone (I have yet to meet him face-to-face), he's been nothing but cordial. Still, that's easy enough. This summer, he went above and beyond, and at a time when it really didn't stand to gain him anything but the undying loyalty of a four-year-old. "Star Trek" had already basically come and gone from theaters, and I was writing about Toshi's discovery of the original films on BluRay. Toshi's birthday was coming up, and I mentioned it here. A few days later, a box showed up at the house with the Bad Robot logo on the outside. Inside, Toshi and I found matching crew hats from the movie, one for each of us, and since then, anytime I'm out of town, I wear my hat, and Toshi wears his, and it's a nice way for us to have a daily reminder that we'll be together soon. But the big ticket item in that box was a gorgeous Enterprise model, complete with flashing lights and battle sounds, along with a note that said, "For my new favorite 'Star Trek' fan, from JJ." Toshi hasn't gone a day since then without that Enterprise close at hand. He eats with it. Drives places with it. Sleeps with it. It means the world to him. For JJ, I'm sure it was a relatively simple thing to do, but it wasn't necessary, and that's the thing that makes me feel like this guy is more than just a Hollywood player who slips on the geek because it's convenient and makes money. He knows what it's like to dream, to believe in these stories, and he knows that for a little boy, having an Enterprise of his very own is something amazing.

And now Abrams has an Enterprise of his very own. And I can't wait to see where he takes it next.

"Star Trek" will be in stores on BluRay and DVD on Tuesday.