Sunday, November 22, 2009

Star Trek rebooted (Movie Review)

I finally got around to seeing the 2009 reboot of the superannuated Star Trek series. Star Trek movies are notoriously hit and miss.

How does this installment (hereafter ST11) stack up? We need to judge a film, in part, by what it tries to accomplish. ST11 is largely successful on its own level.

It’s been criticized for superficiality. For example, Roger Ebert says, “The Gene Roddenberry years, when stories might play with questions of science, ideals or philosophy, have been replaced by stories reduced to loud and colorful action.”

I think that both overestimates Roddenberry and underestimates ST11. One of the attractions of the SF genre is that it allows us to explore impossible possibilities.

However, since most SF writers are atheists, they are better at asking the big questions than answering them. I’m happy to be spared Roddenberry’s pop philosophy. And I think TNG generally got better after he kicked the bucket.

Ebert maybe at that time of life where his nostalgia enhances the original experience. But many of the TOS episodes were clunkers. At the early episodes of TNG had its share of clunkers, too.

Star Trek films (as well as TV episodes) get bogged down when the franchise takes itself too seriously. When it assumes an oracular tone of voice.

These are things I liked about ST11:

1.Many people have commented on the breakneck pace of the action. But there’s more to it than that. In many films, the plot is a series of set-pieces which are discontinuous in time and pace. You cut back and forth from one scene at one time or place to another scene at another time or place. In other words, the action moves in skips and jumps. Indeed, this is a deliberate technique to lend variety to the action, by juxtaposing two or more contrasting scenes.

By contrast, the action ST11 far more stepwise, especially in the first half or so of the film. It’s as if there was a cameraman who tagged along behind the characters as they go from place to another, without any breaks in-between. The effect, then, is to make the viewer feel like he’s following the characters wherever they go. The view is immersed in the flow of the action.

So it isn’t just the fast-paced, action-packed storyline which gives the film so much angular momentum. Rather, it’s the continuous action that generates impetus.

The action isn’t nonstop just in the sense that there’s one zippy scene after another. Rather, it’s nonstop in the sense that one scene follows directly on the heels of another. Contiguous in time and space. No let up. No time to stop and catch your breath. You have to keep moving every step of the way.

That wouldn’t work of a Jane Austen flick, but it’s a very effective technique for a film like this.

2.ST11 is partly driven by action, but it’s also driven by emotion. Not pursuing the “great idea,” but the raw, spontaneous feelings of the cadets.

Basically, it’s a celebration of youthful exuberance. Adventurous, energetic twenty-somethings. A frat house in outer space. High school football in the stars.

These are characters and actors having a ball working together. Having a good time. Getting a bang out of life. It’s fun to watch men and women having so much fun.

Of course, that isn’t deep and searching. But it works for the kind of film it is. Different phases of the lifecycle have their own rhythm.

3.The CGI is expert. At a minimum, SF buffs expect realistic CGI. “Realistic,” not in the sense of possible, but a realistic illusion. In addition, the CGI is spectacular.

But it’s more than dazzling special effects. The film makes a genuine effort to really see into the future. To closely visualize the futuristic world (or worlds) in which the action takes place. It’s very dense. Fills in all the details. No fudging.

That’s an artistic achievement. And it contributes to the sense of immersion. The viewer is inserted into a completely furnished futuristic world. As if we were right there, alongside the characters. Inside the world of the film. That’s a good use of CGI.

4.The director and screenwriters have also made an effort to fill in the marginal characters from TOS. I think they do so with varying degrees of success. Scotty is basically there for comic relief. But they probably give him for airtime in this one film than just about the entirely of TOS. And they also give him lots of colorful Celtic dialogue to roll his tongue around.

“Bones” is good. More humorous than Kelly’s moralistic performance. I appreciate their effort to give Uhura more to say and do, but it’s a stretch. Feels padded. Because it is. There’s still not much they can do with Sulu. At least not in this installment. They turn Chekhov into a wunderkind–which is more entertaining than the original character.

I’ve never known what directors see in Winona Ryder. There are better actresses, as well as better-looking actresses. But she’s a minor character, so it doesn’t much matter.

I prefer Mark Lenard as Sarek. But, of course, he wasn’t available to reprise his old role.

Then you have Leonard Nimoy in his swan song. He’s looking and sounding very frail, which is not surprising for a guy who’s pushing 80.

I’ve never known what happened to Nimoy’s voice. In TOS he had an excellent speaking voice, but over the years it became a shambles. Did alcoholism damage his vocal chords?

Then there are some things I think are less successful:

1.The problem with time travel is that it logically eliminates the element of risk. You don’t need to save the world in the nick of time since you can always go back in time and head off the precipitating event that caused the catastrophe in the first place. So the logic of time travel (to the extent that time travel is even logical) severs the nerve of any dramatic suspense. To enjoy the action you have to suppress that consideration.

2.The dramatic value of the Vulcan character trades on the tension between their outward control and their sublimated emotions. ST11 dissolves the tension by making the Vulcans too overtly sentimental. At that point they become equivalent to human characters. So why have them?

3.Chris Pine is convincing as a cadet. He’s not convincing as a captain. He succeeds in this role in this particular film because he’s jumping into the breach. He could function as head of the Away Team, but not as a starship captain.

Quinto is perfectly cast as Spock. But there are problems with the way his role is scripted (see above).

In sum, the film is a great romp–like a trip to a futuristic amusement park.