Star Trek

Star Trek Beyond leaves the Enterprise in smoldering ruins

The Enterprise is left a smoldering ruin in the first 20 minutes of Star Trek Beyond... and so is the Star Trek franchise.

The Enterprise is left a smoldering ruin in the first 20 minutes of Star Trek Beyond… and so is the Star Trek franchise.

Amy and I watched the latest Star Trek film tonight on disk from Netflix. I can say that this is easily the worst Star Trek film ever. It may be one of the worst big budget films ever. That the Enterprise is completely destroyed in the first 20 minutes serves as the perfect metaphor for what J.J. Abrams is doing to this franchise: turning it into smoking ruins. Abrams directed and wrote (I think) the first two of the reboot films, and executive produced this one. The first film was good. The actors really pulled off the difficult task of stepping into the roles of such iconic characters. Abrams appeared to understand that Star Trek is first and foremost about those characters and their relationships. The second film continued to honor the characters, but it lost its footing with an implausible story and a really, really bad grasp of physics. But it is Citizen Kane compared with this new film, which fails in every area: Ridiculous plot. Absurd “science.” Plot written to serve the special effects. Special effects that aren’t very special (how can they be when the film is wall to wall effects?). And, worst of all, the actors begin to look like frauds pretending to be Spock, Kirk, Bones, Scotty, because the writers just don’t care about them as characters any more.

Here are some random gripes about this travesty:

  • The filmmakers rush from one outlandish and impossible stunt to another, conjuring up whatever pseudo-science they need to explain why they can do this, usually with a quick one-sentence explanation from Scotty. “He’s using the gravity slip stream…”
  • How the villain and his crew end up doing what they are doing makes no sense whatsoever. How they get the amazing technology to destroy star ships when they are stranded on a planet is gasp inducing, and not in a good way. That they even know about a super weapon that comes into possession of the Enterprise is unlikely at best. Why the villain keeps the crew of the Enterprise alive, when he’s intended to destroy millions of people is inexplicable, except to the extent that the writers needed them alive so Kirk, et. al. can rescue them.
  • How is it that the Enterprise is on a five-year mission to explore unknown space, but there is a giant Federation space station with millions of people on it at what they describe as the edge of the frontier?
  • It takes the crew longer to fly from one edge of this space station to the center than it did to fly from a distant planet within a nebula.
  • Seeing that nostalgic music worked for Guardians of the Galaxy, the filmmakers boldly incorporate that idea into this story. But the music sucks.
  • The writers dutifully make Scotty and Bones say things that Scotty and Bones are known for saying… i.e. “I’m a doctor not a…” and “Captain, I’m giving her all she’s got…” (or something close). But that’s no substitute for actually making these living, breathing characters.
  • Why there is a vintage motorcycle onboard a deep space, early star ship that has crash landed on the planet on which Kirk and crew are stranded is a head scratcher, but you know immediately that Kirk is going to ride it at some point. And when he did, I just felt another round of “lets create the stunts first, then we can shove a plot in there to fill in the cracks.”

I love Star Trek and these characters, but someone has got to rescue them from J. J. Abrams. Steven Spielberg, where are you when we need you?

Screen view: the latest Star Trek

Star-Trek-Into-DarknessWith my afternoon free yesterday, I decided to attend the early matinee showing of Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second installment of J.J. Abrams re-boot of the science fiction classic. The last film I saw at the theater was Prometheus about a year ago. I guess I like to see big-budget science fiction films on the big screen.

These two films share some similar flaws. Both play fast and loose with the laws of physics, and both rely way too heavily on characters behaving in irrational ways only to serve the convenience of the plot. Where these are fatal flaws in Prometheus, Into Darkness survives them due to the raw power of the characters.

In his first Star Trek film, Abrams wisely gave himself permission to wander outside the lines of the traditional Trek storyline through a time-traveling incident that changes the course of history. This gives him latitude to add and subtract — as he did by having the Vulcan home world destroyed and introducing young Mr. Spock to old Mr. Spock. I applaud this decision, but it should not let the filmmaker off the hook for at least attempting to make his physics look plausible.

To me, two things distinguish Gene Roddenberry‘s vision of the original Star Trek: Intriguing, interesting characters and a fascination with the wonder and beauty of the universe. For the most part, the TV series that have followed in Roddenberry’s footsteps have maintained both these attributes if not always to the same standard. J. J. Abrams, however, has eschewed the latter attribute in favor of dynamic, pulse-racing action. Whether this is his own preference or just the nature of Hollywood today, I don’t know. But one of the side effects is a complete disregard for the physics of the universe we live in and the nature of his characters’ motivations.

Let’s start with the opening scene, where we find the Enterprise lurking on the bottom of an alien ocean. The Enterprise is a  craft built to travel in the vacuum of space. It would not be able to bear flying through an atmosphere let alone handling the pressures from thousands of tons of water! But even if it could withstand such forces, the Enterprise is certainly not built to be able to “take off” from under the water. This is merely preposterous. The Enterprise does not have a means of upward propulsion against the forces of gravity. For that matter, the entire opening action set makes no sense, but I won’t go into all that.

Alice Eve as new character Carol Marcus is not one of the physics problems that plague the film.

Alice Eve as new character Carol Marcus is not one of the physics problems that plague the film.

Then there is the question of just how fast these ships travel. It appears that aboard the Enterprise you can make it from our solar system to the home planet of the Klingons faster than I can commute to my office 12 miles from my home. Yes, they have warp drive, but so do the Klingons. If we’re that nearby, why didn’t the Klingons conquer Earth centuries ago? In all the other Star Trek versions, the immensity of the galaxy is one of the key elements, but apparently the galaxy has shrunk in the new universe J. J. Abrams has created.

There are temporal problems, too, where the action taking place off camera should require days to occur, but happens during what seems just a few hours of the time in the main scene. The biggest of these issues is when Kirk calls from nearby the Klingon home world to Scotty who is in a bar back on Earth. Somehow, Scotty has the time to commandeer a space craft, fly it out to Jupiter, stow away on the super space ship he finds in dry dock there and is on board when that ship shows up in Kirk’s neighborhood within what seems like just a few hours from when Kirk makes the original call.

Another of my peeves with the movie is the tiring gimmick of the transporter being only effective enough at various times to be able to solve the next crisis with the maximum amount of suspense and tension. It would be much too easy to overcome obstacles if the damn thing worked properly all the time!

Oh, and did I mention the endless maze that engineering on the Enterprise has become. They would have to be able to warp space inside the ship in order to fit that goliath mish mash of phony technology onboard.

And finally, the motivation of the evildoers remains sketchy, at best. I simply could not believe that these characters would make the choices they do. They are not sociopaths, though they behave as if they are. Those who are capable of loving their families generally do not make random decisions to slaughter hundreds or thousands of innocent people. Yet, they do just that in this movie, because it is necessary to have characters who would. (While Kirk is trying desperately to save lives, thousands must be killed near the end of the movie when a space ship smashes into San Francisco, yet no one seems too perturbed by that.)

So, yes, there are lots of problems with this film. But what redeems the entire movie are the great characters and their relationships with one another. The creation of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty et. al. was the true act of genius by Gene Roddenberry. To his credit, J. J. Abrams honors this legacy, even building on it. And the cast pulls it off almost flawlessly. As in the first film of this reboot, I totally bought into these actors as those familiar and iconic figures created for TV almost 50 years ago.

Into Darkness is really just a vehicle for these characters to live and interact with one another, for their relationships to grow and develop. It helps that we know them so well, a factor Abrams uses to good effect. He doesn’t need to provide much back story, as we are already familiar with it. So when Kirk gives a look at one of Spock’s emotionless comments, we laugh, knowing all about the tension between Kirk’s fiery personality and Spock’s logical approach to every situation. Abrams leans heavily on this familiarity. He also takes things further, providing a sexual relationship between Spock and Uhura, who is a much more important and interesting character in these films. She joins the boys in a lot of the action sequences.

Benedict Cumberbatch: Imagine Sherlock Holmes crossed with Jason Bourne.

Benedict Cumberbatch: Imagine Sherlock Holmes crossed with Jason Bourne.

Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a good performance as the villain — or is he? — a kind of hybrid of his hyper-brilliant Sherlock Holmes character and a fighting machine like Jason Bourne. A new character, Carol Marcus, is introduced into the franchise, played by the lovely British actress Alice Eve. Marcus is a science officer and weapons specialist, and possible love interest for one of the other characters.

By the end of the film, order has been restored as the bad guys have been vanquished and we learn that these first two J.J. Abrams movies are just the prologue to where the TV series began, and the Enterprise and her crew are now ready to start a five-year voyage to seek out new life and new civilizations. I just hope that Abrams boldly chooses to obey the physical laws of the universe a little more closely in the future.

Screen view: Star Trek

Year of release: 2009

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Leonard Nimoy

Director: J.J. Abrams

Viewing: Majestic Theater, Williston

 

Three Reasons to Watch:

  1. You always wanted to see Kirk cheating on the Kobayashi Maru test.
  2. You couldn’t get enough of Lt. Uhura’s mini skirt.
  3. You want to have at least one good time in the theater this summer.

Three Reasons to Avoid:

  1. You have a low tolerance for cheesy Russian accents
  2. One Spock at a time, please.
  3. You’ve just started War and Peace and have to have it finished in time for classes to start in September.

 

I took the day off from work today, because I had a medical appointment in Burlington this morning and I decided to make a day of it. Turns out the new Star Trek movie was premiering, so I made that part of the trip. I attended the first matinee in Williston, at the theater with the stadium seating. There was a pretty good sized crowd for a weekday afternoon prior to the end of school. Mostly middle-aged men like me. Hmmm.

Anyway, the movie. It was terrific. I’d heard some mixed reviews, so wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a great summer time entertainment, with action, humor and the good feeling of watching old friends. Well, old friends who are young again. The filmmaker, J.J. Abrans, is a big Star Trek fan, and that affection comes through. We get a film that honors the 1960s TV show, but is not restricted by the Federation universe created in that show. The trick? Romulans who travel through time and change the course of history. I won’t say how… but some of the changes are pretty big. The result allows the storytellers room to update the characters (but not Lt. Uhuru’s mini skirt, thank goodness), and gives them latitude to have the crew boldly go where no Kirk has gone before.

The actors all do good work. Chris Pine sometimes makes us think he actually is William Shatner. Karl Urban could be DeForest Kelley’s son. Simon Pegg doesn’t look a thing like James Doohan, but he’s got the accent and a gonzo attitude. Zoe Saldana isn’t as shapely as Nichelle Nichols, but is just as sexy. The one exception is Zachary Quinto as Spock. There is nothing wrong with his acting, but he has awfully big ears to fill, and it perhaps doesn’t help that the man he is replacing is actually in the movie. Leonard Nimoy has hard-edged features and a fantastic voice. When his Spock talked, even with his Vulcan monotone, people listened. Quinto, on the other hand, is rounded edges and has a much softer voice. Consequently, he just doesn’t have the screen authority Nimoy had (and still has). Nevertheless, he gives us his own interpretation of Spock, which may not be quite what we’d hoped for, but works. Most importantly, he and Pine have a good screen chemistry.

I just have two complaints about this film. First is the scene early on when a young Kirk (maybe 11 years old) is seen speeding down a lonely road in Iowa in an antique sports car he has stolen from the family he is living with. There is no reason for this scene, other than to be used as a marketing tool to lure younger viewers. My second complaint is with the accent used by the actor playing Checkov… it may be the most annoying Russian accent this side of Boris and Natasha!

The bottom line is that we get what all “remakes” and “TV Show to Film” efforts should be… equal doses of nostalgia and something new and fresh. I am looking forward to the next installment.