Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: Star Trek (2009)

I wasn't really a nerd in school. I had to gain acceptance into their social stratum—I had to work up to nerddom (indeed, I never even played a tabletop RPG until college). This is largely because I moved from city to city and state to state so often that, statistically speaking, at any given point in my academic history I was probably the New Kid.

Table 1.1: School Social Strata ca. Reagan-Bush-Clinton Era

Stratum Name
(Descending Order)
Access to Sex, Liquor, or Non-Homemade DrugsTrek Franchise Investment
JOCK AFFILIATESModerate to ExtremeNone
(& Vo-Tech Hicks, Where Applicable)
Low to HighNone
ARTY COOL TYPESModerate to HighNone to Low
NERDSNone to LowLow to Extreme
UNTOUCHABLESThat's Pretty FunnyLet's Just Say, Probably Writes Letters to Counselor Troi

(Don't worry, I'm going somewhere with this.) You will notice that the second and third columns above represent two major forms of escapism, for members of all strata, from the meat-grinder hellscape of their shared environment. You'll also notice that each of them is roughly inversely proportional to the other. That Star Trek was almost completely rejected by all but the lower strata is, I'm certain, a large part of Paramount's decision to not just reboot, not just reimagine, but thoroughly reinterpret the franchise with 2009's embarrassing film.

That fact alone would have been ample reason to hate J.J. Trek if you were one of the nerds who had always considered Trek to be a defining personal affiliation. But an even more profound reaction is justified when you consider how artlessly that transition was made—and how blatantly it was aimed at the summer blockbuster ticket-buying zombies who seem to be the only market that matters. When I first saw J.J. Trek (in the theater…sigh), I thought I was prepared. I knew it'd be action-focused, and I knew the undeniable reason for it was that the pre-J.J. Trek sequel series and features had underperformed.

Yet despite all that, I was so awestruck by J.J. Trek's vapidity that my normally-robust capacity to analyze constituent filmic components was compressed into a featureless, white-hot ball of resentment. (Not a red ball.) Now that I knew what to expect, I figured I should see it again to get a firmer grip on my feelings.

To put it succinctly, there's no reason this particular film needed to be called Star Trek. If the film industry wasn't struggling so much, it might have had any name—since at its core, it's Generic Explosion-Filled Mythic Space Hero Story. That would be its "truename" in the D&D sense. (YES I AM A NERD NOW, HOW'D IT TAKE YOU SO LONG TO NOTICE.)

Allow me to defend my stance.

Even the worst pre-J.J. Trek nearly always had something to say. The concepts that underlay the franchise back then can be debated for their intellectual merits, but they were there. Ten years ago, if you asked random people what Star Trek was about, only those most ignorant of the franchise would say "Adventures in space, pew-pew" and nothing more. But that's exactly what J.J. Trek is. And while it has pretensions of taking place in the same general setting as its predecessors, the film provides a version of the Federation that might as well not even exist, and it can't make Starfleet seem any more distinctive than whoever the Starship Troopers worked for.

Chris Pine's James T. Kirk demonstrates not an instant of the trained-military-officer character traits exhibited by every previous captain in the franchise. Instead, what the narrative expects us to accept as the reason for his viability as the Enterprise's commander is (so far as I can guess) his audacity and his Destiny.

The destiny part, to the degree that it is explained at all, seems to have something to do with Spock-Prime's transit into this new timeline. (I will defer the discussion about that time-travel plot's inanity, since it is hardly a problem with only this one installment of the franchise, and plus I have a hunch this might get way too long otherwise.) Since "destiny" is a characterization short-cut in nearly all stories that employ it, not much more needs to be said there.

As for the audacity…that would really seem to be a disqualifying trait for command of a brand-new, enormous, top-of-the-line spaceship with a crew of hundreds. Ah, but that would be thinking too much, which J.J. Trek very evidently doesn't wish of its audience.

So okay. Let's analyze the film from the perspective it would prefer. Do we like Kirk-Pine because he's a no-rules jagoff? Well, the actor has some natural charisma, even if he looks like a snot-nosed punk. But the script does him no favors. Indeed, the only moment where he is really called upon to do something, rather than have things happen to him, is the "Be a jerk to Spock so he'll step down" scene. (I'm not including the drill jump scene because that's much more CG than acting, and the latter is the concern here.) At the film's close, when Kirk-Pine takes the captain's chair in his gold uniform amid triumphal music and cherubim and seraphim, all I could think was "I'd be putting in for a transfer right about now if I was a crewman on that ship."

Zachary Quinto's Spock deserves some analysis too, since the film presents him very much as a lead character. And, since the film goes ahead and gives us Nimoy himself, I feel justified in comparing Quinto's version of the character with Nimoy's. Quinto's performance shows clear acting chops, and he certainly has the right look for Sexier Younger Spock—but he falls over the emotion side of the acting-emotionless-without-being-boring tightrope. At times it seems like he based his performance more on Kirstie Alley's Saavik than Nimoy's Spock, and that's not just because they put one of her lines in his mouth. That said, on the continuum (and you just knew THAT word would be in here somewhere) of transgressions committed by J.J. Trek, slightly overemotive Vulcans isn't too grievous. You could even attribute it to cultural changes somehow brought about by Nero's incursion. If, y'know, you felt forgiving.

The rest of the ensemble is largely disposable. Simon Pegg's Scotty represents one moment of genuine creativity in the script; knowing the character as I do, I can totally see him starting his career at a shit posting, and his outsider manner lightens the mood once or twice late in the film. But Karl Urban as McCoy has some interesting lines early on, then all but vanishes. Similarly, Uhura and Sulu each get about one good moment, after which they're just along for the ride. But I don't hold this against J.J. Trek, since every previous Trek movie gave one or two cast members short shrift too. J.J. Trek can bear it less, since this is supposed to be our introduction, but that's the fault of whoever decided to reboot Trek in movie rather than TV form.

Of course, the visual style and special effects are one of the main reasons J.J. Trek exists at all, and for its adequacy in this domain, I give it one star. I say "adequacy" because even though many aspects of its design struck me as downright well-done—the action scenes, the glory shots of ships in space, the interior of Nero's ship—others rankled. I mean: warp nacelles larger than the secondary hull. A bridge that looks like a surgical ward. And my god the lens flares. They're not just drinking-game frequent; they're distancing. What kind of sci-fi cinematographer deliberately coats every other frame with visual reminders that we are watching a movie?

If you're detecting a certain degree of residual adolescent emotion roiling beneath the surface of this review, well, let's face it: we lower-social-strata types had Trek, which provided escape and provoked analysis. Now it's gone—replaced with a hollow mockery intended for our natural enemies, the upper-social-strata types—and we are left with relics, their gloss and novelty fading with time like a decades-old ad poster in a remote convenience-store window. The fate of all things, to be sure, but the old could have given way to the new in a more consistent manner.

Then again, perhaps it couldn't have. Trek is one of those franchises with enough baggage that trying to become a super-fan from scratch can be a colossal, even unmanageable, task—though not as much so as if you were to move beyond the Star Wars films and into the Expanded Universe, god help you. One way or another, making Trek sustainable again was going to involve some measure of gutting and sexifying. I can accept that. What I don't accept is the notion that Trek no longer has, or should have, anything to say.

I would acknowledge an argument that Roddenberry-style Trek is obsolete, and has been since as early as 1966. I might even be persuaded by such an argument—after all, Roddenberry surely was influenced by (some) Americans' brief and aberrant post-WWII feelings of unity, appreciation for peace, and acceptance of progressive notions like treating all people the same and ensuring that the less fortunate are not punished for being less fortunate. That blip of genuine human consciousness was already on its way out by 1966, and while Roddenberry at least deserves credit for basing his show on it, the argument could definitely be made that the notion quickly stopped reflecting contemporary mores.

However, I get no sense that Abrams & Co. are making that argument, or indeed any argument. Maybe it would've sucked that much more if they'd tried, but there's no way for us to know the outcome of that timeline.

Star Score: 1.5 out of 5

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