Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Where Hordes Have Gone Before

Last night's tweets;

An apple followed me to a movie.
Star Trek starts out working maybe too hard.
But a green broad always makes things groovy.
I must say I still miss Captain Picard.

I went to see Star Trek last night, so to-day I started reading about the prevalence of high blood pressure in the U.S. and I found that, although it hasn't drastically increased since 1999, it has significantly increased since 1989 and, what's more, seems to be an increasing problem among teenagers.

This, to me, is why the audience needed an angrier Kirk, a Kirk who likes to start fights and be a prig to everyone. Don't get me wrong--I enjoyed it, and it makes sense this Kirk would be more of a misfit since he had an apparently more traumatic youth.

I'd thought Cloverfield was the only J.J. Abrams thing I'd seen (he produced it), but my sister reminded me he was the co-creator (along with Cloverfield director Matt Reeves) of Felicity, a television series starring Keri Russell which I watched with my sister for its first season before I lost interest. I remember the problem I had with it was its overuse of melodrama--the show's best moments were sweet, regular vignettes of Felicity getting by in New York City and forging relationships. But then the show started focusing on Felicity getting mugged, someone dying, someone falling prey to substance abuse, and so on. That all these things should happen on a weekly basis to one girl strained credibility, to be sure, but the problem was that character development suffered for the contortions necessary to bring the characters through these hoops and we were forced to take things less and less seriously.

Abrams' love of melodrama is still very much alive in Star Trek, but apart from the opening that featured Kirk's father, George, expressing an emotional farewell to Kirk's mother while she's in labour and while George is about to die in a collision course with a Romulan vessel, I didn't mind most of it. Mostly what I appreciated about the opening sequence were the props and set decorating--with a lot of pipes and clear plastic curtains, Starfleet structures have a very nice feeling of layers--not grimier, exactly, but definitely lived in and chaotically utilitarian. I was reminded of the sets and props from 12 Monkeys.

The new Kirk aims for a slightly Fast and the Furious vibe, most explicitly with an opening car chase, but he, Uhura, and McCoy are introduced and developed well, despite the briskness of that early portion of the film. I loved Karl Urban as McCoy and his reproduction of DeForest Kelley's Georgian accent, and Zoe Saldana as Uhura was great, particularly in close-ups, expressing a lot of depth without ever hitting anything too hard. She and Zachary Quinto kissing in the turbolift was really nice--an entire dialogue of facial expressions from her wanting to console and support this guy she'd fallen for to him deciding how much emotion he's supposed to let himself feel.

Quinto pulled off the particularly difficult task of playing Spock rather poetically. He was like an Ang Lee character--a guy whose nature and environment require him to restrain his passions forced to figure out who or what he's supposed to be when he's fundamentally different from everyone else.

I love Eric Bana, who played Bruce Banner in the Ang Lee Hulk with great depth and intensity. But just about anyone could've played the Romulan villain Nero for all the time and development he's given in Star Trek. His quest for vengeance against Spock is reminiscent, like many things in the new Star Trek, of Wrath of Khan, but Nero's not given Khan's oddly charismatic monologue sequences, which did a lot to establish the emotional credibility of Khan's grievances as well as the plausibility of a man manipulated by his own pride losing his mind in his vendetta.

Kirk's taunting of Khan into folly is sort of mirrored in the new film by one of its biggest misfires when Kirk taunts Spock into losing his cool. Considering Spock knew what Kirk was trying to do, and that he'd spent his life learning to control his emotions, it didn't seem plausible for Spock to blow his top the way he did, and it seemed even less plausible for anyone on the bridge to accept Kirk as Captain afterwards.

But the two biggest weaknesses of the film, for me, were Winona Ryder and the design of the new Enterprise. Accepting a 37 year-old actress as 31 year-old Zachary Quinto's mother is hard enough, but things were exacerbated by Ryder's complete inability to sell a character much older than herself. I was reminded of Francis Ford Coppola criticising her abilities in the commentary for Dracula and Star Trek forces us to realise how particular the environment needs to be for Ryder to be interesting. As her character unfortunately ends up being somewhat crucial a lot of weight has to be carried by the other characters and, despite Zachary Quinto's talent, this particular aspect of the plot was totally sunk for me.

One of my favourite lines of the film was Simon Pegg's Scotty wishing to work on the Enterprise in order to "handle her ample nacelles". But this is one of my least favourite designs of the Enterprise--I only hate the Enterprise-E design more. Yes, this new Enterprise has the extended length of the E's nacelles and with greater girth, sure to please any warp field. But with big, dull, turbine bussard ramscoops.

I do think this is all a matter of aesthetic taste--I can appreciate that people might like this bulbous thing.

I'd forgotten Tyler Perry was going to be in the movie. It was another case of a role just about anyone could've played, but I'm wondering if Perry was a major factor in Star Trek's unexpected success. I saw an interview somewhere of a Perry fan in the midwest talking about how no good Christian feels safe going to the movies anymore and how great Perry was for guaranteeing a wholesome, raunch-free experience. So I wonder if Star Trek drew crowds by the Tyler Perry seal of safety. I'd bet you good money those crowds didn't think anything of the sex scene with the green skinned woman or Kirk peeping on Uhura stripping down but would decry such things in another, Tyler Perry-less movie.

J.J. Abrams stopped by The Howard Stern Show a few days before the movie's premiere. Abrams had been on the show a few times before and it's clear the two like each other a lot. Abrams talked about how he hoped to be lucky enough for the movie's opening to break 30 million--Stern, who'd seen and loved the movie, correctly predicted the movie would make at least 75 million on its opening weekend. So the movie's already surpassed the 40 million Star Trek Nemesis made total.

I think it's a better movie than Nemesis--I barely remember Nemesis, which is probably a good indicator of how weak it was. I do remember being the only person in the theatre when I saw it. There were three other people in the theatre with me last night, but I was at a 10:55pm showing on a Monday night. The Next Generation movies always suffered from dumping many of the best aspects of the show--Data's whole personality, the unique and great Enterprise-D design, and, above all, the thoughtfulness. I lament never again having a long conversation over tea with Captain Picard.

There were a couple more problems I had with the new movie--space and ships seemed smaller than I remember in the 80s films, but maybe that's just because I'm older. The script wasn't great, relying too heavily on echoes from earlier films. But mostly the cast made it work and Abrams is a competent director. I'd like to see this team on another film.

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