Wednesday, May 13, 2009

J.J. Abrams' Awesome Trek Fanfic!

That's my one-line review of the new Star Trek movie.

D and I saw it yesterday, and we both enjoyed it, but I have to be honest here: regardless of its provenance, the story still felt more like fan fiction than actual canon--Trek-flavored, if you will; much better than Enterprise, but still not the real thing.

Before I dive in, a couple of non-spoilery remarks:
  • As the end titles started rolling, I thought: "John Cho gets top billing? Represent, brother!" Then I realized the principal cast were listed in alphabetical order (Ben Cross being the second name was a big hint). Oh well. At least Cho's starring in another Harold & Kumar flick next year.
  • The score started out perfectly, with a lone French horn, but the overall tone of the theme music was a bit too martial for me. Which leads nicely into my next point...
One of my earliest memories is of standing up in my crib and watching television. The three shows I remember most clearly are Space: 1999, Star Trek, and Bewitched. (I can just imagine some of you nodding and muttering, "That explains a lot.") For me, the thing that always distinguished Star Trek from other shows was its stated mission:
To explore strange new worlds;
To seek out new life and new civilizations;
To boldly go where no one has gone before.

At its core, Trek was all about exploration and discovery. The best stories they ever told, IMHO, involved the crew learning something new, either about the universe or about themselves (ideally both), figuring out how something worked, and--if it was broken--fixing it. It often also pitted personal principles against rules and regulations (e.g., Kirk vs. Prime Directive), and above all, it emphasized that science works. It wasn't always the right answer, and sometimes it was even the cause of the problem, but there was no question that science and research were the key to a greater understanding of our universe and ourselves.


The new movie gets the characters right, even while tweaking them a little. I agree with screenwriter John Rogers that "[a]lmost every choice was the best possible choice" in that regard. You should go read his excellent analysis of "how what will be the most successful movie of the summer kicks conventional screenwriting 'rules' in the junk." You could also read film critic Anthony Lane's thoughtful review of the new Trek's "recklessly rolling plot... [which] powers along, unheeding of its own absurdity, with drive and confidence," even if he is a bit of a downer.

I have issues with the new Trek's wacky pseudo-science (yes, even wackier than the usual technobabble), multiple deus ex machinas and MacGuffins, and nonsensical villain motivation (hello, Evil Overlord); but, as D said, whenever the story stopped making sense, the filmmakers just threw in a big action scene to distract us. That's one advantage movies have over books, at least in the hand-waving department. They can always flash something shiny--or naked, or explodey--to distract you from a weak story. It's a problem when spectacle overwhelms storytelling (insert Michael Bay joke here), but Abrams understands and respects that balance.

As a longtime fan, I'm still ambivalent about the massive continuity changes wrought by this reboot. The alternate reality angle, even more than the Spock/Uhura 'shipping, makes this seem like fanfic; and though I understand why Abrams and company chose to destroy Israel Vulcan and kill Amanda, it feels to me like The Powers That Be just gave up on trying to deal with that culture. I'm glad they recognized that Spock is an integral part of Trek--you could argue that this is really his movie, not Kirk's--but I think his story was already interesting enough, and obliterating his homeworld just seems mean-spirited.

At this point, a sequel seems inevitable, and maybe the Vulcan diaspora is part of the plan for rewriting the Trek universe: to shift the fundamental balance of power in the galaxy away from Vulcan, which was previously depicted as a highly advanced civilization and one of the governing races in the Federation, and toward Earth. I noticed that while several alien Starfleet officers got screen time in the new movie, very few of them actually had speaking lines: Kirk's obligatory green-skinned honey was little more than a prop, and Scotty's little Ewok friend doesn't actually do anything useful. Um, xenophobic much? Let's not do that, guys.

To end on an "up" note: I did enjoy all the little in-jokes and callbacks to previous Trek incarnations, especially the sound effects and the return of the 47s. It's a sign that the writers were paying attention to at least some of the details, and it gives me hope that this new Trek will respect the history of the franchise while putting an interesting and different spin on it.

(ADDENDUM: My Facebook friends inform me that Abrams previously and independently did the 47 thing in Alias. Guess Paramount picked the right man for this job, then.)


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