Wednesday, May 13, 2009

MOVIES- Star Trek lives

(Might be spoilers here, but not of plot points.)

So, I finally saw Star Trek at the 10:20 PM show at the local cinema. I was surprised by a number of things, not the least of which was that it was almost a private showing. I saw Watchmen twice the first week (one digital and one IMAX) and the theater was packed both times even though both were matinees. Last night there were only two other people in the theater. I did pick the last showing on a Monday night to avoid the crowds, I just didn’t expect to be that successful.

It’s gonna be hard to discuss this movie without giving anything away that might ruin it for anyone. But the novelty of having a Star Trek movie that actually has the potential to surprise anyone is so unique that it’s worth preserving. Episodic television is perhaps the most formulaic and cliché prone form of entertainment in history. So usually TV shows rely on soap opera or the likability of the cast to attract viewers. The problem with doing that with SF is that it has not traditionally been character driven, instead depending on strangeness to draw an audience. Shows like Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5 have tried to overcome that by placing more emphasis on character and striving to have plotlines that actually change the status quo over the course of the seasons. But back in the 60s the constraints of television were to rigid for the latter, even though Star Trek was perhaps the first genre series to attempt the former. When Roddenbury, and perhaps even more importantly, Gene Coon, established the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate as action-intellect-emotion (or id-superego-ego for you Freudians) it was one of the first times in SF TV or movies that the characters were anything other than their job descriptions. Sure, it was two-dimensional, but in a format where one-dimensional was the norm it was still a whole lot better.

Which isn’t to say that the show wasn’t full of cliches. We all know better. You could write a book on all the plot devices ST beat to death- Kirk’s cosmic libido, Spock’s raised eyebrow, driving computers mad with illogic, planets that parallel earth in every aspect but one, last minute technological solutions as a literal deus ex machina, beam me up, I’m a doctor not a -, fascinating, godlike alien menaces, people in other people’s bodies, time travel, the list goes on and on. OTOH, for every cliché they made famous it seems there was a new (for TV in those days) idea somewhere too. Multi-cultural crewmembers, women in positions of power, a military that was more diplomatic corps than fighting corps, continuing setting SF with aspects of the anthology series’ morality plays, aliens that weren’t monsters but instead just thought differently than we did, a non-imperialist philosophy of non-interference, heck, even the idea of taking it all seriously was different. It’s hard to imagine it now, but ST’s main competition was LOST IN SPACE! LOST IN for God’s sake SPACE! A “space family Robinson” with kids and a pet mad scientist and robot comedy team, marooned on a planet made from cardboard rocks that was visited every week by a space aliens which ranged from pirates to sentient rutabagas. And the ratings were neck and neck!

But because they took it seriously, it’s hard not to say that ST was the most influential SF in history. Computers you could talk to, Space “Shuttles”, communicators that look like cell phones (or vice versa), medical equipment built right into beds, there’s a lot of our world in that crazy old television show. And perhaps that’s a lot of the problem. The new things in ST became cliches as well. Until just about all that was left after six TV series and ten movies were the cliches. So Paramount gave the franchise over to J.J. Abrams for a restart.

If you’ve read the reviews you know that they have been almost universally positive. Rotten Tomatoes has a composite score or 95%. There’s no basis for comparison between this and previous ST movies since the tomatometer only goes back to 2002 and the only other ST movie is Nemesis (at a deserved 35%). But considering first weekend grosses and all the praise, this looks to be the most successful movie in the history of the series, beating out ST IV- So Long and Thanks for All the Whales.

The problem is that the movie doesn’t really deserve it. It isn’t a great movie. Hell, it isn’t even the best movie of the series. I suspect that a lot of the praise is the result of closet fans, who had grown so tired of the cliches that they just couldn’t go there again, being relieved that they could come back through the door and keep their self-respect. Not that the movie is bad. For a Star Trek movie it’s in the top three. And not that Abrams didn’t do a hell of a job walking the tightrope he had in front of him. Most of the roads taken by other reboots in the last years weren’t really open to him. Had he stunt-cast Spock as a woman or shown us a dark, gritty, morally ambiguous Federation I have no doubt that he would have been burned at the next ComiCon as a heretic. More than that, he would have made something that wasn’t Star Trek. Trek was never really science fiction; it was space opera- Roddenberry’s western in space. It took itself seriously but never too seriously. It wasn’t afraid to have a little fun on the way to places no one had ever gone before. Abrams greatest success may be that he kept that lightheartedness intact.

Abrams ST isn’t so much a reboot (though it is that in a literal sense which is one of the most clever things about it) as it is a remake. And ironically for the prodigal fans who think they can now return to the fold, all the cliches are still there. ALL the cliches. But it’s OK because they are all turned just enough to make them seem fresh again. The whole movie is an odd combination of familiarity and disorientation. You’ve seen it all before, but you have no idea what’s going to happen next. Once again, for the first time, there’s a sense that you can be surprised by what’s about to happen and it allows you to actually give a damn again. And that’s what’s been missing from Trek for a long time.

So it’s still Star Trek. Ah, but therein lies the rub. It still has all the old gotchas plus a couple of new ones. Star Trek has always been something you had to take at face value. If you start asking questions like “Doesn’t transwarp teleportation make spaceships obsolete?” or “Howcum Checkov knows more about using the transporter than the transporter crew?” you start to treat it as a real movie rather than as Star Trek. Just as I suspect a lot of the praise if born of relief that it’s not a failure, I suspect that as soon as the shine starts to wear off a lot of fans are going to go back to that age-old tradition of picking the nits. I’ve always felt that was one of the enjoyable things about ST. It wasn’t afraid to make fun of itself so it invited the fans to poke a little fun at it as well. So, in that spirit, a few other questions and observations that occurred to me.

Again, doesn't transwarp teleport make spaceships obsolete?

And why do the innerds of every spaceship look like a water treatment plant or metal refinery?

Why levitate spacecraft over the Iowa plains when you could, I dunno, build them in orbit? It's a cool shot but doesn't make much sense. Plus, the enterprise would have to be built out of neutronium to support it’s own weight in a gravity well.

Just how big are these spacecraft anyway? The Kelvin had 800 crewmembers on board? Then how many does the Enterprise hold? It’s the new flagship, so you’d imagine it was bigger. No wonder everybody runs everywhere in the corridors. Thing’s probably a half mile long.

And what’s with the magical technology like "Red Matter" that creates quantum black holes. Set the doubletalk generators to kill. I also have a problem with the inertial dampeners on the transporters. If you can’t account for gains and losses of potential and kinetic energy then a lot of crewmembers are going to materialize only to fly off the pad and hit the opposite wall of the room like a water balloon dropped from the Sears Tower. Somehow you can beam from a planet to a ship going hundreds of times the speed of light without a problem but when you beam up someone who is falling you can take away just enough of their kinetic energy to keep them from being killed hitting the floor but not enough to keep them from hitting the floor altogether.

Why does everybody know more about transporter technology than the transporter crew? Checkov (Checkov, for pity's sake) has to leave the helm to show the transporter experts how it's done. OTOH, I can live with Scotty reinventing transporter technology from a character point. He always was a whiz with those things (like the way he saved himself so he could do a guest shot on TNG) but Checkov?

Sulu can't remember to take off the parking break!

Gravity sucks, inverse square law be dammed. And the final escape is a silly as TOS Kirk driving computers insane with bad syllogisms every three months. I’m not going to say how they did it but it was stupid and implausible in every way.

The new costumes are kinda ugly. The new Enterprise is kinda ugly. The new bridge is kinda ugly. I know they had to put their artistic stamp on the look of the movie, I just don’t agree with some of the aesthetic choices. One of the things that set the original series apart was the design. The Enterprise wasn’t really like any other spaceship before it and had the kind of clean simplicity of design that has survived near infinite variation for over 40 years. This one looks like just another fan drawn variation for variation’s sake. Likewise the new bridge is a mess. The pleasing design and simplicity of the round, split level design and the strong lines and shapes have been replaced with a crowded mess. Why is there somebody in a phone booth over Kirk’s right shoulder? Is the thing actually round or what, you can’t really tell. And what the heck are those red gee-gaws on the helm? They look like the taillights of a 1950s Buick.

And did they actually put a big picture window in the front of the bridge? Even if it doubles as a viewscreen, a window?

Bottom line? It's a good Star Trek movie. Go see it. But don't expect it to be a great movie.

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