Saturday, September 24, 2011

The All New, All Different: Star Trek

So, with my man J.J. finally committing to directing the next Star Trek, I thought I'd celebrate by dropping a review of his first effort that I wrote at the time:

art by Brock Rizy

So we can all agree that Star Trek was butter (well, not all of us, but I'll get to that), so I won't waste time trying to convince you to like it. Instead, I'll try to lend some perspective to the franchise in light of what we have at this point. Just so we're on the same page, let's go over what J.J. Abrams did right.
One of the things that strikes me most now, months later, is how focused the movie is. It knows what it wants to do and gets right to it. Kirk's an out of control cowboy, Spock's trying to find himself, Bones is a spaz (in a good way), and never are we in doubt about these guys' personalities. The characters are established quickly, as is the plot. The story is speeding towards it's own resolution almost from the prologue. I mean, the prologue itself is a complete story: We establish the villain's goals; the destiny of our star; and the heroic nature of Starfleet itself. After that the Abrams seems to be using the ABC method of story telling. Fate seems eminent and, clocking in at a lean 127 minutes, little time is wasted in fulfilling it. Kirk's destined to be captain of the Enterprise, Spock & Kirk are destined to be friends, Sulu's destined to have madd skillz with a sword: By the time this movie is over, all is as it should be.
Of course, the vehicle of all this destiny is the U.S.S. Enterprise. She's a prime example of what pushes this movie to the next level for me; perhaps rivaling Star Wars if the merchandise is leveraged right. I speak, of course, about Stark Trek's mech design. We can start with the Enterprise herself. Have you seen her? She's built like a freakin' muscle car! The redesign on the warp engines alone is revolutionary. The bridge design is pretty much like the classic bridge, but streamlined so that it still feels futuristic, and doesn't fall into that future-retro trap. The Narada is a monster of a ship, which also works, visually, as a mining vessel. Even the Kelvin with it's single warp engine was pretty cool looking. Everything down to the phasers and that foldaway sword Sulu had, the design is brilliant.
Another positive facet of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek is the strong characterizations. This has been one of Abrams' strengths through his career. I would suggest this was accomplished as much by casting as by writing. Zachary Quinto (Heroes, as if you didn't know) was probably the least controversial casting decision, and I must admit, he didn't disappoint. Zoe Saldana(Avatar) as Uhura was another easy one, though she didn't have much to do (then, Uhura's never had much to do). Karl Urban was the most pleasant casting surprise of the movie. His Bone's was genius. He took what at first glance might have been considered an elaborate McCoy impression and brought us a brilliant, manic doctor; paranoid, but with good reason. Now, Urban's a guy who's delivered a healthy dose of mediocrity in the past. I can only attribute this energetic performance to handling by J.J. Abrams. Of course, the one everyone was worried about was Chris Pine's Kirk. Would it be an imitation; or a complete departure? In the end, they exorcised Shatner from the role, while keeping the essence of Kirk himself; the spirit of adventure, the cowboy recklessness, the gravitation to responsibility. This role is probably the one aspect that creates a wormhole from Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek to J.J. Abrams' Star Trek.
And so, I say that to say this: The movie's great. But there's more to it than that. I think Star Trek made a bit of cinema history. It's an in-continuity reboot of a franchise. How many of those have we had in the movie industry? Comics has them constantly, to it's detriment, but this is the first I've heard of a movie franchise rebooting while retaining it's continuity. I would suggest that this is due to Abrams having a comic book state of mind. And when I say “Abrams”, I'm really referring to his entire writing team. They've shown this state of mind in the past on Alias and Lost (I wouldn't know about Felicity, maybe someone out there can enlighten me) and I think it works in their favor.
And perhaps it's this state of mind that leads to some of the flaws this film has. Yes, Star Trek had flaws, and they're worth mentioning because they speak to what the essence of the franchise was and what it will be going forward. One of the most noticeable aspects of Abrams' Star Trek is that, as a sci-fi epic, it's more fi than sci. Now, that can be taken a-lot of ways, so here's what I mean by that. Star Trek, since it's inception, has been about exploration and diplomacy in space. J.J. Abrams' Star Trek has neither. No scientific discovery; no sociological anthropology; no nothin'! Even the bad guy, while very three-dimensional and who's story was capable of that social anthropology I mentioned, wasn't really gotten into because, in the end, Nero and his beef weren't the point. The point was that Kirk and Spock are great friends and great adventurers. Now, this was simply Abrams playing to his own strengths: that's what he's supposed to do, it's quality control. But, having said that, is this what we can expect from a J.J. Abrams Star Trek? And let's not forget the Romulan question. Trekkies have been complaining about the miss-characterization of the Romulans for years now, and while, granted, Nero isn't the modal Romulus native one would come across in a Trek story, this representation did nothing to allay such grumblings. And that's important. 'Cause here's the stakes:
Star Trek is a decades old, world famous sci-fi franchise; 2nd, some would say, only to Star Wars. This latest movie has set itself up not just as a narrative reboot, but a cultural reboot. It is no longer Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek; it's J.J. Abrams' Star Trek: And Abrams does, or seeks to do, what Bryan Singer couldn't do with Superman; make it relevant to today's audience. But now that it's relevant again, can it rest on just the adventurism and cool characters? Will the audience require more mature themes in the future? After all, this film brims with energy, but it's a sophomoric energy, a trait Star Trek shares with MI:3, lest we forget. Can that be maintained as a sufficient status-quo through future movies as not only the cast, but the audience ages?
And what of television? Is this strictly a movie franchise now, or can we expect another series. And what would it possibly be about? Certainly not Kirk and Spock; that's the movie's territory. Perhaps this will force the producers to give us a perspective that goes beyond a captain and his crew on a Starfleet vessel. As much as I liked Abrams' Star Trek, it does leave questions about the franchise's future. Great things are possible, but it requires someone with fresh ideas and a commitment to depth as an integral quality of the Star Trek universe. Can J.J. the take this thing beyond the first film of a franchise reboot? We shall see.

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