Monday, May 25, 2009

A Teeny Boppin' Trek



The future is a busy place. The future is fast. The future is bright. The future is so busy and fast and bright that endless axis-spinning and whip-pans and lens-flares can't capture all the action. Which doesn't really matter, since there's nothing really interesting going on anyway. Basically, the future is a lame television show. A very slickly produced television show, viewed on the world's biggest HDTVs.

The future is also pretty. Not a beautiful, eminent vision of the future like Metropolis, it's pretty. It's filled with stick-figure super-model looking women who look like they've eaten a piece of bread over the course of the last month and androgynous pretty-boy pinups that represent our culture's definition of masculinity. Which is to say that Chris Pine's Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto's Spock conform to our culture's vanity--- they have nice, inoffensive faces that you can plaster on Magazine covers and soda cups from fast-food chains. As with previous Abrams' products--- Alias, Lost, Cloverfield, I felt less like I was watching actors and more like I was watching models strut up a celluloid catwalk. And it all comes complete with the glossy slickness that has becomes Abrams' defining trait, unfortunately.

Which isn't to say that everyone isn't mostly enjoyable in their roles--- I found Pine grating at first, but then I found the film's entire first act (the prelude to the space trekkin') to be generally awful--- Star Trek meets The O.C.. Eventually, though, I settled into the movie's vibrations and accepted it for what it was and--- wait for it, actually had a little bit of fun, too. Quinto does seem to be channeling a young Leonard Nimoy without doing an outright imitation--- no easy task, and Pine rises above his material and proves himself to be an engaging screen presence with this feature. It's amusing seeing Eric Bana take a role so campy and ridiculous so agonizingly seriously, but the man is seriously dedicated to giving the most stone-faced high-camp performance in blockbuster history. Everyone else performs admirably, if not particularly memorably.

But the act of viewing J.J. Abrams' Star Trek is most unfortunate. There's an extremely enjoyable movie trapped somewhere in this mildly enjoyable one, and this leads to a frustrating viewing experience. And, while the script isn't exactly Chayefsky, it's really Abrams' directing that sucks the fun out of the movie. Star Trek has been written off as 'big-screen TV' by quite a few critics, and I don't really think that's fair, as that implies that all TV has a bland aesthetic . J.J. Abrams himself proved that notion wrong with the pilot of Lost, which managed to combine an aesthetic and rhythmic sense of action with a Producer's sense of economic storytelling (it's comparable to Spielberg's Duel, in that sense). Unfortunately, this mogul sensibility gets the better of Star Trek.

The opening sequence establishes that any sense of spacial relation would be simply non-existent. If you were to think of the camera as a dancer, then Abrams has two left feet. His camera is constantly obtrusive, continually denying the audience the satisfaction of knowing where objects within the frame are in relation to one another. The lack of camera choreography in action scenes continually deprives us clear-views of the action; the individual shots reveal little to no space within the frame, and the pictorial rhythm is such that it makes the act of trying to figure out where things are in the geographic sense a trying effort. His dialogue sequences are more satisfying, but still a rather limp-dick affair; Abrams uses nothing but the most basic of set-ups to flesh out his characters: wide shot, over the shoulder close-ups, shot/reverse shot. It's an aesthetic syntax that wears out its welcome pretty quickly--- ineffective at best and irritating at worst. You know you have a problem when you find yourself missing Christopher Nolan's bumbling, which is at least singular, distinct bumbling. Abrams just has a bland demographic pandering sensibility.

Which is especially disappointing as his first feature, the third Mission: Impossible movie, also pointed to a talent. Unlike Star Trek, which is all pitched at the same bombastic frequency, Abrams actually mixed up the technique with that feature; he used a myriad of tools at his disposal and this led to a much more satisfying viewing experience. In the pilot for Lost and M:I 3, each shot is an effective part of a visual tapestry, but it doesn't seem like there's any purpose with respect to the image succession in Star Trek. I never thought I'd see a large-scale blockbuster that seemed like it didn't use storyboards, like the shots are thrown together with no rhyme or reason; but, if ever there was one, Star Trek is it.

What we're left with is a slickly produced piece of market-sharing. Star Trek was made by a committee dedicated to making the inclusive Star Trek more main-stream and accessible, not a man with a vision. Ultimately, Abrams' take on the cosmos and their mystery is diminishing and uninspiring. Its 'humanist' thought is tacked on and disingenuous; a regurgitation of blather from the series instead of a fresh, invigorating take on pop-culture folk-lore. Compare this with other film makers who simultaneously over-powered you with spectacle, but used this spectacle to heighten your senses and expand your understanding of the world around you: Lang, Kubrick, Spielberg, De Palma, Scott--- and suddenly Arbams' teeny bopping vision of the spoiled, entitled, petulant young Enterprise crew seems particularly tacky and pointless. Whereas other film makers have heightened cosmic contact to religious experiences, Abrams still casts the 'other' in a generic monster role. How far we haven't come.

10 comments:

Homiebrain said...

Star Trek had a lot of potential to be an amazing film, but all of it's mainstream sensibilities made it feel like it only delivered on half of what made Star Trek it's own entity, and even that was wrapped in a glossy sheen that would blind you if you angled it just right.

I never got into the Star Trek movement as a kid, so I went in with a rudimentary understanding of the universe. In spite of this, I still felt like I got half of what I was expecting. Abrams set up a new version of these iconic characters with his own touch of flair, but it seemed like the sense of adventure (while not totally lacking) and the sentiment of tolerance and respect for other cultures took a backseat to the characters because it didn't fit with what is now the formula for all franchise reboots, which is to simply have opposing forces collide and create fantastic fireworks in the process, and any sort of ideology is usually crammed between the cracks. This is not to say that Star Trek is guilty of all these formulaic fallacies, but it certainly doesn't try too hard to get away from it either. It made "sense" to make and market the film this way, and while I found it was an enjoyable experience and made for a great summer action blockbuster, it's a shame that they felt they had to dumb down this film to set up for a sequel that will hopefully be more faithful to the general themes of Star Trek and less about the literally eye-fucking spectacle. Here's me holding my breath.

Ed Howard said...

I agree, Ryan. I thought the movie was a mess, and often not even an entertaining mess. I was mostly just bored: the plotting was turgid, the staging was inert despite Abrams' habit of swinging the camera around willy-nilly, and there's surprisingly little of drama or pathos considering the large scale of what happens. I mean, at one point Vulcan actually *blew up* and it hardly registered, partly because with all the confusing time travel mechanics, I half-expected them to restore it by the end of the film.

The actors were mostly good. I like Zachary Quinto and it was good to see him freed of the slowly rising swamp pit of horribleness that is *Heroes*. Simon Pegg was funny, although he seemed badly out of place. Chris Pine was as swaggering and smug as a young Kirk should be. But it all just added up to nothing.

bill r. said...

Oh, dear. The chances are pretty solid that I'll be seeing this on Saturday, and all's I want is to have a good time with a film version of a show that I don't really care about anymore. So I'm setting the bar pretty low. But then, I also set the bar pretty low for Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, and look how that turned out.

Ryan Kelly said...

Friends, Bloggers, Countrymen...

Brian & Ed, glad we agree, as that makes life a lot easier. ;-)

I don't even mind that the emphasis was on spectacle. As I wrote, other film makers have used spectacle to be contemplative. But the mystery of space is just lost on Abrams. Even George Lucas gives the cosmos their due more properly.

So yes, it's that it was an action movie first, and ideas and humanism second. As Ed said, a fucking ENTIRE PLANET was destroyed and it barely even registers. It's just a cheap spectacle, with no subtext in the narrative or character sense. And, to echo Ed's sentiments even further, it's not even really effectively brainless.

Bill, it really is kinda enjoyable. Though, I warn you, the opening is by far the worst part--- not just the opening scene (which is pretty bad), but the whole opening act is just generally embarrassing. That the movie manages to recover from a beginning so terrible is a testament to its sense of fun... I guess.

Love to know what you think when you get 'round to it. Are you (or were you) an old-school Trekkie?

The Warfreak said...

I've yet to see Star Trek: The College Years or whatever the title is, but I never had that much interested in it.

Ryan Kelly said...

I could echo that sentiment, I've been pretty far from initiated when it comes to Star Trek. The closest I've come to the original cast is the hideously boring Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and I've caught some episodes of the spin-off shows in the 90s. If anything, maybe I'll pick up The Original Series and give it a whirl some day. But this one seemed unavoidable.

bill r. said...

If I was ever any kind of Trekkie (and I suppose I kina was, when I was a kid), I was an old-school one.

I still like the show -- or I guess I do, though I haven't watch it in a while -- I just don't really care that much anymore, and I don't fully understand those that do.

A. Lucier said...

I first got acquainted with Star Trek when the scifi channel ran the series in chronological order every weeknight when it was hosted by an original cast member, I quite enjoyed it but would not consider myself a "Trekkie"by any stretch.

You know when I first skimmed over Roger Ebert's review and saw where he had written this is more "space opera" to where the original series was "science fiction" I balked at the notion of the original series being science fiction, but in comparison to this series it is Sci-fi to the umpteenth power. The blatant disregard for the amazing events taking place that would require a manipulating of space time we can hardly even imagine was hard to believe (even for a 2009 summer blockbuster). Abrams who has admitted he knew nothing of Star Trek before taking on this job takes on to much of an outsiders perspective and doesn't seem to have any faith in the subject matter itself and feels that he must distract us with action sequences so we never realize the superficial level that this story operates on. It's as though Abrams believes Star Trek is beneath science fiction and cannot get by on the strength of it's much beloved character's as they are in his mind a weakness. Once you cut through all of the camaraderie and other BS the most introspective moment in the movie is when Old Spock tells young Spock that to salute him with his normal farewell would out of place and self serving. This moment is also accompanied by the all to comical command given from Old Spock that his younger self needs to go away with Kirk on adventures while he stays beyond to help the dwindling Vulcan race repopulate.
"MY FUROR, I CAN WALK!"

If you sit back and actually think of the specific events and LOGIC behind them it is not at all difficult to imagine why the film felt the need to blow up planet Vulcan. If my memory serves me correctly the excuse to get kirk and his fellow tykes into action was that all of star fleet had vanished or was out of commission,and we are therefore left with no choice other than emptying out the star trek academy and dumping all of are cadets with no experience into the brand spanking new Enterprise for some on the job training.

Tee Chess said...

I agree that Star trek could have been a nice movie. But the confusing entertainment made it an overall mess. I left the movie after 10-15 minutes. This movie is not at all worth one time watch.
Watch Star Trek Online

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