Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Go Boldly, or Go Home: The Vanity Mirror Universe of STAR TREK (2009)

Star Trek (2009 — hereafter Star Trek '09) contains many punchings, shootings and implodings of things. It is sort of funny and sort of dumb, which makes it par for Summer Movie Fun Zone course. The story retraces the meteoric rise of James Kirk immediately before and after — but only for three minutes during — his Starfleet Academy training, and first hours on the job as captain of the USS Enterprise. The external conflict concerns Leonard Nimoy as the Spock of 2387 attempting to stop save Romulus from its own sun going supernova. He fails and is sucked into a black hole — which somehow translates as "time warp wormhole" — with a surviving Romulan mining vessel, and upon reemergence 153 years earlier the vengeance-crazed Nero (Eric Bana, playing straight as possible) declares war on all Spocks young and old. The emotional story is about Kirk realizing his potential rather than succumbing to anger and adrenaline addiction, and Spock suffering the tortures of biracial identity issues. This may sound like rich material, and that is because it has been rich material for 40 years. Trek '09 does not actually engage these human concerns, not in the specific or abstract, but uses them to clumsily throw characters into roughly the correct location for the next action setpiece.

Director J.J. Abrams is a great TV concept man, though his most successful hour, Lost, is a straight-faced adult suspense remake of Gilligan's Island. He is a fine producer, though Lost rapidly lapsed into improperly planned idiocy, he did not touch script or camera for the excellent Cloverfield. He is, however, a terrible writer — responsible for Regarding Henry, Armageddon, Gone Fishin', etc... —and a worse director. Abrams' best directorial quality is a knack for hiring excellent actors then getting the hell out of their way. Unable to communicate in anything but big head close-ups of actors, and special effects shots which he technically did not "shoot" so much as "approve storyboards for", Abrams never needs to compose a striking, poetic, informative, or dramatic frame, because he is going to wiggle the hand-held around all over the mise-en-scène anyway. The script is not his doing, but it is entirely Abrams' fault that Trek '09 looks like a modern, boring garbagey TV show, rather than the beautiful, lurid, exciting and dreamy garbagey TV show it is based upon.

Star Trek '09 attempts an impossible, contradictory project regarding Trek Lore, desiring to reinvigorate these vigorous characters with a rousing space opera adventure and simultaneously mummify them in reverent awe, as pop culture icons whose every step inches them toward their fated seats on the bridge of the Enterprise. Neither writers nor actors know whether to play this as if we are meeting characters afresh, or if everyone is in on some colossal and unhilarious joke about destiny and remakes. The result is a lot of quite literal smirking and mugging by the cast when they do something in character... If that makes sense, which it does not.

Chris Pine captures the bravado, temper and swagger of J.T. Kirk, but not the sheer lustiness and vigor, the sweatiness and passion. He also has bad skin, is not as handsome, and does not bulge in any of the same sexy or unhealthy places as William Shatner. Pine's Kirk is less about joie de vivre than goofing around like everything is a blast all the time. This is, perhaps, not his fault, as the script gives him no opportunities for scenery chewing at a Shatnerian level, and not even much fuel for scenery licking. While the timeline disruption merely saddles Kirk with unnecessary daddy issues — his frustration with the Kobyashi Maru test are motivated by the horror that his father died in exactly the same situation, rather than the perfectly sufficient reasons built into the character as Shatner played him — this is nothing next to the reconfiguration forced on Spock.

Zachary Qunto, pasty and eyebrow-shaved, does what he can despite being miscast and having to interpret a version of Spock which removes virtually everything that makes the character Spock. If two generations of the awkward and scholastically gifted have deified Spock, it is because they admire not just the Vulcan half-breed's brains and efficient self-defense technique, but his resolute coolness, his detachment, that he comes from a math culture. Spock 2.0 is birthed by creators who do not respect or understand Vulcan itself, let alone the appeal at the heart of the character. In point of fact, the plot hinges on watching Vulcan collapse in on itself. Quinto, while certainly odd-looking, does not have the authoritative bass-baritone rumble, etched-granite skin, equine facial bones, hollow cheeks or penetrating glare of his predecessor; he is neither Other enough nor strangely beautiful as Leonard Nimoy. It may even be that Leonard Nimoy's very Jewishness informed Spock to a degree that cannot be replaced. Do-over Spock variously fumes beneath the bowl-cut over his Vulcan-ness, which is here not a metaphor for anything, or resents his human-ness; symbols of both cultures are sacrificed, forcing us to witness the appalling sight of Amanda Grayson falling in a big hole, and rendering Spock confused and with a vague identity crisis. Perhaps as ironic counterpoint, but more likely in grave misestimation, Winona Ryder gives an emotionally thin and otherworldly performance as Spock's human mom, while Ben Cross is more recognizably human as Sarek. The brilliance of Nimoy's original has always been that Spock, raised Vulcan and icy, has always had emotions, but no equipment for expressing them. In Trek '09, he has always been a mess (better not to delve into an out-of-nowheres smoochy relationship with Uhura, which must be surely break Starfleet regulations, and be singularly unsatisfying for the lady in red, and replaces the more interesting sight of Nurse Chapel pining for Spock). The very story of Spock is of a being put in touch with his humanity through prolonged contact and friendships on the Enterprise and with Kirk in specific. For a film purportedly about Kirk and Spock's dynamic, this imbalance is disastrous. Spock unequipped to deal with emotional turmoil + Kirk's lust for life = the formula the birthed the very notion of slash fiction. This has always been the pulse of this relationship, and Trek '09 makes hash of it.

Trek '09 is not about much of anything but itself and maybe the very idea of Trek Mythos. Some not-sense about people from the future impacting the way the Enterprise crew started hanging out and an old (well, future) enemy seeking straightforward revenge via convoluted plan is the kind of imagination-retarded story you might invent while playing with your Mego action figures. It is a huge mistake on the screenwriters' part to think the Wrath of Khan plot is hotswappable with a kiddie-Trek story. The recycling (thievery, if you prefer) renders the resonances of Khan moot, is one of the reasons the story doesn't work or feel like it makes "sense" (not to mention: they got paid for that?). It is symptomatic of the screenwriters only sort-of getting it. Because Khan's is partly a story about the end of Kirk's youthful derring-do, and career-long struggle with the Prime Directive. It is a story of the headstrong, boldly-going youth's bad decisions catching up with him in middle-age.

Trek '09 tries to graft the decade-spanning revenge and aging story onto an origin story. The result is a movie about young adult Spock forced to deal with a villain who wants to make Spock pay for perceived sins he will not commit for more than a century and a half... an error which is not even really Spock's fault.

In a very funny list posted to Mobius Home Video Forum, Lenny Moore outlined extremely basic hard-science problems at the root of the plot, not the least of which is how Spock and Nero's crew survive being sucked into a black hole, or exactly what Romulus is supposed to do with no sun and a matter-vacuum directly adjacent to its atmosphere. As above, problematic too is the crucial emotional-truth logic of how characters are behaving at any given time. Nothing in Trek '09 makes any goddamn sense. This is because it is, again, sort of dumb and weird as well. For some (waffling, sucking-up, ass-covering) reason, this re-whatevering of Trek does not simply jettison all previous continuity, as in, say the Ultimate Marvel comics line. It not only does not refuse to start over and let everyone in the audience deal with their own hang-ups about this, Star Trek '09 devotes its entire running time to explaining why it is not Star Trek starring Messers Shatner and Nimoy and the ship's bridge looks like a very clean public restroom rather than a rec room, and the phasers look like cheap plastic squirt guns instead of bad-ass squirt guns. This is not ten minutes of applied phlebotinum, but the entire story. The baffling result is that the movie has no story of its own and spends two hours justifying its own existence.

The Trek notion of time-travel has always been inconsistent, but nowhere in Star Trek '09 is it obvious or logical that Star Trek '66 still exists. The new film doesn't "branch off" the timeline so far as I can tell, but supersede the Original Series... and therefore Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space 9. Don't worry about Enterprise, because I guess it wouldn't fall in the black hole, and already had continuity issues of its own. There is a vast amount of horrible Star Trek already, so under lab conditions I do not care a whit for dogged faithfulness to a continuity that does not serve the needs of storytelling. But Trek '09's A Story is preoccupied with little else but series continuity. This is the Star Trek equivalent of Crisis on Infinite Earths. As such, it begs for exactly the kind of scrutiny the screenwriters have presumably been tasked by Paramount to alleviate. And, as with all else, it is highly illogical at best.

Indeed, as the faithful yelped after seeing the trailer, James Kirk Prime cannot drive a 20th Century motor vehicle, as seen in "A Piece of the Action". But no matter: Black Hole Universe Kirk picked up the skill. You may or may not buy this, but after the temporal anomaly, any and every detail may be chalked up to The Hole. But!:

Events which occur in Trek continuity before the timeline alteration are violated before the Trek '09 plot patch-in even occurs: Jim Kirk's older brother Sam is a no-show, the Kelvin is able to identify a Romulan ship and nothing is made of how historic the encounter is, despite Kirk's clear question in the episode "Balance of Terror": "After a whole century, what would a Romulan ship look like...?"... or after 60 years, for that matter? Spock, McCoy and Scott's (pre-temporal anomaly) birthdays have been left nebulous, therefore presumably unchanged (and, [hand-wave] they look a good deal younger, though the actors are roughly the correct age, save Karl Urban as McCoy, who is ten years shy of DeForest Kelly at the inception of his five-year mission). Perhaps their personal histories since birth have been altered since the timeline anomaly, yet it causes all three men to enter Starfleet service at grossly late dates in life. This "altered" timeline seems awfully preoccupied with making sure all of the Enterprise crew is either the same age, or goes through Academy together, and all end up on the bridge faster than the first go-round (in Original Series continuity, Sulu started as a physicist and Chekov didn't make navigator until second season). The timeline also seems to have it in for Dr. Piper and Gary Mitchell, who must have been inspired to seek other paths in life, but exceptionally kind to Capt. Christopher Pike. And too, the very nature, meaning and depiction of what it means to be Vulcan is altered in ways that cannot be chalked up to temporal anomaly.

At the end, Spock Prime is trapped in this Hell dimension, where Vulcan has been Alderaan'ed, no one knows who he is, and all his friends are turned into smirking babies. Note: this potentially nightmarish s-f idea is not actually explored in the movie. Because no "ideas" are explored in the movie.

Putting myriad other shortcomings aside (if possible?), this is where Trek '09 fails to be Star Trek. Since the end of Original Series, Trek Universe turned into the dreariest of places, more fun to think about than to visit. Star Trek was colorful and shooty and goofy, sexy and boozy, and peoples' shirts got torn all the time because they were wrassling each other on piles of foam rocks. The first episode is about how McCoy has to metaphorically shoot his ex-girlfriend because she turned into a succubus. But it was also sincere and authentic speculative fiction. It waddled the line between hard and soft s-f. There are weaponized ship battles, and a space-Western spirit of adventure, but most every Original Series story is centered on some brainy classic s-f thought experiment, serious social, political or religious allegory, philosophical conundrum or, in purest form, asked seriously: what if?

Fine enough. Screenwriters Orci and Kurtzman never ask What If?, only ask How did they get on that spaceship? They got the action and adventure relatively right, but that is only part of the Star Trek spirit. Taking someone else's toys and playing with them in semi-clever, very loud and enjoyable way may be what these fellows do best, anyhow. In 2007 they wrote a better script for a movie about the Transformers than a sane person could reasonably expect (similarly sabotoged by a director's refusal to learn how to impart a sense of geography to any scene, be it epic robot battle or simple dialogue exchange). The plotting is lazy as well, hinging every joint on sheer coincidence — often triple-hinging on coincidence — but in a multiplex Space-Shot-ride film, this is not remarkable; excusable but not admirable. To their credit, the writers think of many thrilling and breathless things to do with the transporter room, Sulu's swordfighting skills, and invent brutal ways to smoke Redshirts. It also copiously steals from Star Wars pictures, including duplicating that part with the fish monsters from The Phantom Menace. While it may provide some nihilistic charge to proving that in this do-over Trek anything truly goes, making Spock part of a dying culture is neither as useful or fun as being able to visit Vulcan in future installments.

Oh, and the script hits several Trek tropes and in-jokes that made people in my theater chortle. I am nerdy enough that I think I "got" them, but not nerdy enough to pretend they were funny or that it was any kind of thrill to find out what happened to Jonathan Archer's dog.

Star Trek '09 plays like a Holodeck simulation of Star Trek '66. Fun while you're inside, harmless by design, but it dissolves before your eyes, insubstantial. Simulation over.

1 comment:

Rob Whatman said...

Hi I liked your post. Just wanted to post a geeky comment! James Kirk '09 might well be able to drive a 21st to 23rd century automobile quite well, yet not be able to get the car in A Piece of The Action going. The controls of early cars were not at all standardised - modern drivers would be totally confused by the levers and pedals of a Model T, for instance, they are all in utterly different places with weird pedal combinations for the gears instead of a stick... None of which excuses time paradoxes and bad scriptwritng, of course! :)