Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Star Trek (2009): One Foot In, One Foot Out

by James Hansen

Already a successful attempt to resuscitate a dormant franchise, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek moves the series back to square one for a new generation of fans. Lest ye Trekkies get offended, desperately grappling for your nostalgiac memories of something that can never be replaced, Abrams makes plenty of unnecessary nods towards the franchise’s past, while firmly moving it onto new, if infinitely more conventional ground. Star Trek shows that Hollywood may not be comfortable with a complete reboot, as the hackneyed script by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman confuses itself by attempting to justify the new franchise’s very existence by pitting it alongside, yet in an alternative reality (2009) than, the series’ first reality (1960s/70s/Vietnam/Cold War era). Perhaps cries of heresy would have arisen if there was no recognition of what Star Trek has already been, but Star Trek (2009) feels befuddled when it starts making referents to its own past that it uncomfortably accepts while it wishes it could deny more completely.

And yet. AND YET.

Star Trek is an abundant success as an action movie and a launch for a modern cinematic franchise. Abrams, ever present as a television power, shows big screen confidence that was absent in his directorial debut Mission Impossible 3. Perhaps a credit to his development with the large canvas of Lost, Abrams’ uneven yet oftentimes dazzling TV series, Star Trek is commanding, loud, and aggressive, all the while remaining visually coherent even if it is a bit haphazard at times. Abrams and cinematographer Damien Mindel clearly want to keep things moving in and out of action sequences, as the camera spins, turns, pans, and tracks as much during both the Enterprise’s assault on Nero’s ship as it does when Spock’s rejects his position from an organization that sees his human side as a drawback. Oftentimes, the camerawork really does nothing other than draw attention to itself ¬– a sure sign of Abrams’ sophomoric direction. Still, the sharp editing (not a synonym for rapid) from Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey layers the action and maintains a visually vibrancy. Though it can’t do much to save large scenes that should have been removed entirely (the script really is the major pitfall, as Joe Schuster as thoroughly explained), there is enough spunk amid some mishaps to make the new Star Trek very alive.

What takes Star Trek beyond being another pretty decent action movie are the terrific, charismatic performances by the young cast. Chris Pine, as Kirk, and Zachary Quinto, as Spock, display the kind of chemistry missing from tech-driven franchises and show flashes of deeper characters beyond what is given to them by the script. While Trekkies undoubtedly know these characters inside and out before they are even seen on screen, there is little information given about who they are – another sign of the movie’s confusion of having one foot in the old series and one foot way out. Luckily, the supporting performances, especially from Simon Pegg and Anton Yelchin, are polished, lively, and fun. They provide the support that Pine and Quinto need to carry Star Trek past its weaknesses and to a surprisingly effective high.

And yet. AND YET.

I wonder how well this movie actually serves a legendary series and franchise like Star Trek by means of restructuring the entire product. Without ignoring the original series completely, something fans of the series and the makers of this movie clearly don’t want to do, what direction is the already successful new Star Trek franchise headed in? And do Trekkies out there even care? Is everyone happy enough to see the much beloved characters reunited? Or should there be a stronger desire for some political and social aspects that seem so central to “the Original” to remain embedded in the series? As someone with little connection to the series, perhaps I’m actually the target audience for this – the next generation of fans – and I’m perfectly happy to see a well made, space opera action series. Is that what Star Trek is? Was? Should be? Should I be dreaming of hours of content on the sociopolitical aspects of Vulcan planets? Because, Trekkies, with Abrams at the helm, those days are long behind you. While some may argue this was merely a set up for content to come later, Star Trek, as a uber-mainstream $70 mil opening weekend franchise, isn’t going to suddenly be interested in politics. If anything, the only things that will increase are the recognizable names in the cast, the budget, and the number of explosions, fight scenes, and unnecessary time travel. Perhaps everything new should be accepted as existing in an alternative reality, as the plot of Star Trek (2009) suggests. I’ve got no problem with that. But what does that do to Star Trek (1966- present)? Is this a good Star Trek movie, or just a good movie? Or either? Does it matter? Maybe not. But I suspect if Abrams doesn’t get new Star Trek on some firmer ground next time around, fans, new and old, may be wishing Star Trek lived long and prospered in their nostalgiac minds rather than on the stage its headed towards.

But hey, it’s still a good movie, right?


Chuck W said...

Excellent review--though I think I'd rate this a little higher than you. I agree with you on many of its narrative blunders (some of those plot holes--yeesh!), but I still found myself enjoying this film far more than I originally expected.

Then again, I'm relatively virginal when it comes to Trek. I've seen about seven episodes of the original series--and I saw all of those in the past month or so. I've queued up the film "trilogy" (2, 3, and 4) on Netflix--but, still, I obviously belong to the Trek-illiterate demographic this film was, in some respects, designed for.

With that said, I also wonder if the sociopolitical (occasionally hamfisted) sermonizing of the original series might actually hinder the film franchise more than enrich it. But, again, as you mention--why call it Star Trek, then, if you're going to sever such a fundamental part of the series?

Again--not being a purist really made this more enjoyable, I think.

James Hansen said...

Thanks for the comment Chuck. I actually enjoyed the movie as a pure action movie and am on board for whatevers next (I think), but the more I think about it the more I wonder what its really doing and why. I'm certainly not a Trekkie (I hope I made that clear in the review, separating "you" Trekkies from me "new guy") although I've seen several of the movies and know a bit about the series.

I certainly think the political aspects could hinder the new series in its current form - it would be pretty out of place, at least from the looks of battle scene, battle scene, battle scene, boom, boom, boom that I got in this one. And then you just have to wonder what and why this is Star Trek at all, but whatever.

Not being a purist definitely made it better for me, but it seems like purists really like it too which I find a bit odd based on the things I know about the TV series. I dunno...I'm just not convinced that this isn't going to be just another action The Mummy in space or something.

Unknown said...

As a Trekker from way back, I'd just like to say that I really loved this movie. For me, what was enjoyable about Star Trek in the past was a sense of optimism about the future, which this film definitely shares. The sci-fi genre is too often plagued by fear and doubt when it comes to alien species and artificial intelligence. So even if this reboot launches only a brighter vision of our tomorrow, I will welcome it, even if it chooses to steer clear of some of the more dramatic and subversive sociopolitical elements that some of the series had.

According to the canon, humanity had to endure another world war that killed millions, before we first encountered the Vulcans and found out that we were not alone in the universe. But it was that realization that finally united us as a species and allowed us to move past most of the problems we've been plagued with throughout history. That was the vision of Gene Roddenberry. Science fiction can offer us something to work towards and a peaceful, united humanity is a worthy goal. So I hope this new franchise lives long and prospers. :)

James Hansen said...

Jessica- Thanks for the comment. Sorry I was so slow in responding over the weekend. I'm thrilled to have a comment from a Trekkie, as I'm kind of fascinated by Trekkie responses to the film.

I agree that the outlook of the original Star Trek series is what you're talking about, but I think taking a strictly action movie approach can severely limit the potential of a new series exploring the same ideas. While I share your feelings about needing a sense of optimism in sci-fi, removed from "end of the world but someone will live on I guess" scenarios of well made pics something like KNOWING, I think that stops being "the point" when films are overrun by their effects and action. Star Trek didn't leave me time to stop and think about anything, except what was going on in the action scenes which seemed to never stop (save the sloppy side trip to an ice planet, which quickly featured a random monster chase).

I guess that's my "fear" for the series that I try and call out in my last little bit. I'm afraid the...err... ANY message starts to get lost when things become so overrun by a vastly different methodological approach. The original series, from what I've seen, had more of a handle on the mix. Fun as it was, I think Star Trek (2009) is lacking in that department pretty severely. Doesn't mean it can't change, but do $250 mil franchises really change things much?

Brandon Colvin said...

I think you are way off on this, man.

I don't even want to start with my defense of the film because it will morph into long-windedness, BUT I will say that STAR TREK is NOT lacking in subtext, moral prescriptions, political/social relevance or what may be deemed "substance." It's all there, but it is nestled. To me, this is the modern day equivalent of a Howard Hawks masterpiece. Gut filmmaking that is exciting, humorous, genuinely moving, and goddamned fun. If I watched an action film and felt like I had time to sit back and contemplate what was happening on a level deeper than the action, then what would be the point of repeated viewings? I would call it heavy-handed. (By the way, I did go see it again and it was maybe even better than the first time.)

The characterization was phenomenal and memorable. The cinematography (ESPECIALLY the lens flares which Emerson seems to hate) lent a much needed sense of dynamism to a rather antiseptic environment. The editing was relentlessly paced and the effects were gorgeous. I did not feel cheated, worried, or the least bit troubled about the film and the subsequent franchise having relevance. This is a film about America NOW, the United Nations, redefining the role of the military in society, exploring diplomacy, terrorism/piracy, the endless revenge cycle of international aggression. STAR TREK is the American Dream (or the American Myth) played out in space. To me, that makes it pretty significant. And cool to watch.

Also, the sociopolitical significance of the previous show was rooted in a different time. Nobody comments about the fact that a Vulcan is hooking up with Uhura because interracial romances aren't as provocative as they were in the 60s. Think they should throw in a gay couple just to make sure they fulfill the "sufficiently controversial" checklist requirements? This is one film about one major plotline, not a series of episodes that could challenge whatever in 30 minute chunks. Also, I would argue that STAR TREK's real significance is how it deals in universals and primary differences in general philosophical principles rather than throwing out allegories about modern society.

And, James, nothing is strictly an action movie. You know that. Determining the substance of a film like STAR TREK is a little silly if you're going by ostensible details. As I said earlier, an action film that directly confronts serious issues comes off as tonally confused and a bit awkward. All of this is there, in the film, for the discerning viewer.

I think you should give it another chance.

Also, sorry. I totally ended up giving my STAR TREK defense. Haha.

James Hansen said...

Well, he didn't post it as a response to my review or anything, but Reverse Shot just posted Chris Wisniewski's review of Star Trek which rings quite similarly to mine. Chris is a friend of mine (and, full disclosure, my boss) and we had convos about Star Trek prior to writing our separate reviews so I knew someone agreed with me, but now I really feel like I've got a Trekkie on my boat. Its a review everyone interested in the larger Star Trek universe should read.

James Hansen said...

Brandon- I think I loaded my page to post the comment about Chris' review as you were typing or something because I def. didn't see your response or else I would have engaged with it right away. I'd be interested to hear your take on some of the more expansive things that Chris says but your defense, as always, is well put. And since we've opened up the long-winded (hooray! I'm glad!) why not keep it up...

I think some of your arguments come from general things about the characters more than what is actually in the movie. Spock vs. Kirk (logic vs. free will) is a great battle that will always be fun to watch when its well acted and edited, but I don't think its enough to be making bigger and bolder claims, as you do, about the movie is doing and what it is. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that Star Trek should be stuck in the climate of the 70s. I would have been thrilled to see any of the sociopolitical elements you found in it, but just look at that list you made! If there's ever a checklist for topics to bring up in a movie, that's sure one of them. Star Trek is busy rattling one thing off after another (yes, in a good way for the most part) but thats exactly where it loses any (one) idea its going after. If this is one movie, one plotline (which I never said it shouldn't have been, or displayed any rejection of I don't think) then why so much stuff? The American Dream played out in space? In two hours???

And, similar to my frustrations with THE DARK KNIGHT, just because a writer brings up a random topic up doesn't mean they're dealing with it or have any interest in it within a larger framework. And its the framework here that I'm worried about in terms of Star Trek being able to do anything interesting down the line. Once you're an action franchise, which is undoubtedly what this now is, its going to be hard to do something else. And while you're right, nothing is STRICTLY an action movie, that doesn't mean that the action can never trump, well, everything else in the movie, especially topics it thinks its dealing with. You can't separate how the thing is put together with the message its portraying in that manner. I think, in principle, you agree with me there, but I suppose I could be wrong. Peckinpah, Hawks, Ford know how to achieve a mix of being "more" than their genre. They know how to nestle that material in there so that it bears fruit for the discerning viewer, as you say, and really use the style to underscore the message, the purpose. I really don't think STAR TREK brings much to the table in this respect. (Let me clarify: I'm not comparing it side-by-side to Peckinpah, as in WILD BUNCH is great and STAR TREK isn't as good as that, but more of specifically how they are made). Because there is a council I'm to infer UN? (And, if anything, that makes more sense in a 70s timeframe when the UN mattered to people). Because there's a bad guy who attacks a continent I'm assuming its a comment on international terrorism? STAR TREK succeeds as a pure action movie more partially because it dodges any kind of question and puts it in a constant warp speed of explosions, fights, and lens flares in space. Even if that content were there to begin with (which I seriously doubt) its all thwarted by Abrams' stylistic choices anyways.

I'm not looking for something heavy handed or a direct confrontation with the topics (as in The Dark Knight, which is one of that films numerous pitfalls). I love the movies you're talking about when they infuse and nestle content for powerful exploration in unexpected places. I just didn't see it all. I'm happy to give it a "second chance" (hell, I liked the damn movie) and maybe I'll find something I didn't see the first time. But I think its pretty empty outside of being a fun time.

Brandon Colvin said...

I'm not sure how you separate the characters from the movie. I think Spock and Kirk were far inferior in the original. STAR TREK fleshed them out, especially the parallels in their experiences and the development of their compromise-oriented rapport. This is me talking, not the general consensus. This film made me like those characters, characters which I had never even cared about.

I think it DOES say something about those ideas that seems to rattle off. It's just nothing revolutionary or radical. It's good old-fashioned humanistic heroism. Nearly all of the positive characters display intellectual excellence, advanced critical thinking, selflessness, bravery, and devotion to a common cause (peace, understanding, all of that gooey stuff), while also being ethnically diverse (not to mention the strong female characters). It wholeheartedly reinforces all of those humanistic values, which, as cheesy and trite as they may seem, are actually pretty damned admirable. And STAR TREK didn't in a way that convinced me. Understandably, this is an absurd sci-fi setting, whatever. What convinced me was the characters. I believed them. The film created a circumstance that was genuinely exciting and used it to find a way to reassert these traditional standards of heroism in a modern context. That is every kind of sociopolitical I can think of. It may seem naive, but there is something to be said for the values STAR TREK represents and not just in the way of myth criticism and cultural analysis and yadda yadda. On a human level, I thought this film, specifically, not necessarily the whole series, etc., was marvelous.

Also, I liked the stylistic choices. I'll offer up Tony Dayoub's well-put defense of them from a comment on Jim Emerson's post criticizing the lens flares, which can put found in its entirety at this link:

I agree with you that "The Dark Knight" had some serious problems with its action choreography, mostly because it served no purpose. But I don't think it's the same for "Star Trek."

Chaos versus order... that's what it came down to for me. For instance, Kirk's reckless youth is staged much more jaggedly than Spock's relatively sedate upbringing forming a visual counterpoint that is also reflected in Nero vs. Starfleet.

If one accepts that Nero is an agent of chaos and Kirk and co. are agents of order, then the visual style is justified. In the early part of the film, every Nero appearance has a chaotic, dangerous feeling due to the tight and disorienting camera movements. His ship's design also reflects that in the sense that it's size or scale is hard to get a grasp of (except we know it dwarfs the clean-looking Enterprise). The dislocation felt by the viewer is also necessary to create the sense of the timeline being disrupted by Nero with the iciting event of the movie, the (SPOILER WARNING) death of Kirk's father.

Compare the sequence where the Enterprise first emerges into a starship graveyard over Vulcan - the dizzying dirtiness of it - to the same set of circumstances at the beginning of "Star Trek: First Contact" where the Enterprise zooms into a similar field of starship debris when fighting the Borg. How clean and antiseptic it was in that case. In this new version of "Trek," space feels dangerous in a way it hasn't since the days of the original series when redshirts galore were killed to prove that point.

This was one area in which I didn't mind the "Star Wars" influence (or more precisely "Battlestar Galactica" influence) of the "twisty-turny" camera in space. One of my biggest criticisms of space shots in "Star Trek" has always been it's two-dimensional thinking in regard to space. Space is not a flat plane. Kirk even used this to defeat Khan in ST:II, the last film in the series to really take advantage of this 3-D concept. How gratifying it was to see the film's opening shot be that of the USS Kelvin zooming in space upside-down, as there is no up or down in space.

Once Kirk and crew start to get a handle on the situation, and control of the film's events falls into their hands, then the space sequences become more visually ordered (the turning point seems to be Spock's hijacking of the future-ship from Nero's landing bay).

Tony Dayoub said...

Gotta tell you guys, I'm of two minds on this one. Full disclosure: I've seen every hour of Star Trek ever put on film. And though the film critic in me thinks James is underrating this film a bit (but not too much), the Trek purist in me thinks Brandon is way off-base when he says, "I think Spock and Kirk were far inferior in the original. STAR TREK fleshed them out..." The new Kirk and Spock are most definitely not fleshed out. And certainly not to the degree which the originals were.

But I'm all Trekked out explaining my complicated feelings for the film (which I hope you guys have followed back at my site). If you've missed it, I recommend the 2-part podcast I put up over there. It's three of us, all Trekkies of varying degrees, discussing the new film, and the podcast has proven to be quite popular.

Brandon Colvin said...

My previous knowledge about Trek is quite limited. I'll defer to you on that one, Tony. I just liked the new incarnations more. To me, they made more sense. But that might just be me.

James Hansen said...

Brandon- To clarify, I'm not trying to say the characters exist in some vacuum. The characters and performances are what I think make the movie good. I just don't think, in criticizing what I think is the film's failure (or at least aversion from Star Trek's own concepts) - the lack of any real political point or purpose - that the characters are really fleshed out very much. It doesn't mean they can't be, but if I'm just looking at this movie, I know what the characters believe in for sure, but I don't really feel like they're well developed or that I really have any idea Who they are. I think the review I linked to in my review (from a scriptwriting professor/friend of mine) goes through how the characters are set up and the faults behind that. I sure like the movie a lot more than him, but I think he makes some good points that get at the character issues.

As far as the action sequences, you make an interesting point in chaos versus order and how the style may match that. I'd have to see it again to comment much, but there is a way to shoot chaos (e.g. the pilot of Lost is really brilliantly shot and pieced together) and a way to make chaos so chaotic that you can't even pay attention to anything (which is mostly what I felt about the major sequence in Star Trek - they are saved by the editing). If/when I see this again, I'll look for what you're saying here though.

Tony- Thanks for the comment. I knew you'd been Trekking out over at Cinema Viewfinder, but I'm glad you made a pit stop over here. I haven't made it through all of your Trek stuff yet, but I will. Thanks for dropping us a line!

Tony Dayoub said...


Thanks for spotlighting my comment from Emerson's Scanners.

I want to emphasize that despite my purist's issues with the obliteration of the Star Trek canon, I'm glad that a younger generation of folks now find it cool because of J.J. Abrams reinterpretation. It needed some "freshening up" and for those who watch and have their interest piqued, there's always a wealth of video and books to quench their thirst.

I liken it to rock music, or jazz. Some purists hold that anything after Chuck Berry is not rock. But more open-minds can see how deep the influence still runs in acts like The Strokes... or whatever other bands you whippersnappers are listening to today.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to hear other examples of pure action movies. I mean, I assume that by "pure" you mean total exploitative action--guns/FX with not even a hint of substance. If that's the case, how can you even consider STAR TREK as part of the same genre as Bad Boys?

First your review argues the movie doesn't have enough substance. Then, later, offers that there is WAY too much substance and makes the script go all over the place.