Sunday, June 7, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

We finally saw the new Star Trek movie last night.

We'd been dreading it, frankly. We're big Trekkies. With the help of Netflix we're working our way through Every Episode of Every Star Trek Series (we're almost exactly halfway through: we're in Season 4 of Deep Space Nine). We care about this stuff. We can still laugh about it, but we also take it pretty seriously. And from what we had read, J.J. Abrams doesn't, and that didn't bode well.

But I had also read that, while Abrams at the helm wasn't particularly interested in the Star Trek mythos, the writers and producers down in Engineering were, and that (along with my completist tendencies) made me want to give the film a chance. So we went, finally.

I was pleasantly surprised. I liked it a lot. I had quibbles. It's not a perfect movie, not a perfect take on the Star Trek idea by any means. But they got enough of the big stuff right enough to enable me to forgive a lot of the little stuff they got wrong.

First, the quibbles. I'll skip over filmic stuff that has nothing to do with Star Trek per se, such as the wild overuse of lens flares (nice idea, but they used more in the first five minutes than the entire American movie industry did in the 1970s).

I guess my main reservation is the look they chose for the future. Star Trek, as we all know, is utopian: from the very beginning Gene Roddenberry wanted to give us an optimistic vision of our future. And the art direction on the original show reflected that: everything was clean and well lit. I don't think it's possible to overstate how important that is to the feel of the show, and everything it has come to mean to so many people. It's a vision of the future in which machinery doesn't have to mean blood, sweat, and grease, and the violence and inefficiency they symbolize. Other science-fiction series (Alien, Star Wars) have explored the opposite: a more realistic (I'll admit) view of the future in which dirt and grime have not been conquered, and in which complex machines mean gross festerings of wires and cogs. That's cool, but it's not Star Trek. Only, in this movie, it is Star Trek. Starfleet Academy and the Enterprise itself have the Clean Look, but the Kelvin, and that little Starfleet outpost where they find Scott, have a dirty, chaotic look that doesn't square with the ideal. So: meh. It didn't really affect the movie as a whole, because like I say, they kept the Clean Look for some of the sets. It makes me wonder where they're going to take it, though.

The thing I most expected to hate was the whole reboot concept. I don't think Star Trek needed a reboot, anymore than James Bond did, and more than that I felt that a reboot was going to be like a denial of the Star Trek we know and love. In a way it can't help but be: the Christian Bale Batman demands that we forget the Michael Keaton Batman. And I'm okay with that, but I don't want to pretend that the Shatner/Nimoy Star Trek never happened: part of the joy of being a Trekkie is inhabiting a fictional world in which all of that did happen, along with everything Picard and Sisko and Janeway and all the rest did. Don't ask me to forget all that.

I think on some level the writers knew that, and so they came up with this alternate-timeline jazz. This I was prepared to hate. I seldom find Star Trek time travel episodes very satisfying, and this just seemed like a way to ask us to forget the future of Star Trek while pretending they're not. In the end, I found I didn't really mind much, though, for a number of reasons - and this will lead us away from the quibbles and into the praise.

Partly I didn't mind it because I found myself realizing that, hey, it's just a movie, and the movies have never been where it's really at for Star Trek anyway. Like everybody else I really only like about half the movies (although they may not be the same half that everybody else likes). And I'm a lot more forgiving of time travel hijinks in the movies: First Contact might have been my favorite of all. So I found I could forgive the alternate-timeline thing for the space of one movie. I don't know how well I'll do if they continue with it; maybe another film or two, but if they try to do a series with it, I might just rebel.

Partly I didn't mind it because I actually thought it worked pretty well dramatically. Watching how Kirk and Spock behave in this movie, and McCoy and Scotty and Uhura and all the rest, knowing that these are not the precise people of the original series, is like watching a commentary on the characters from the original series. For instance, as this film itself makes clear, in the "real" Star Trek timeline, Kirk's father doesn't die when he's a baby; but still, watching this movie's Kirk react to that death by developing the same personality traits as the "real" Kirk makes us wonder, well, why is the "real" Kirk so reckless and libidinous? We can understand it for the new Kirk, but what about the old one? In short, they used the alternate-timeline thing to focus attention on the characters in the movie, and the ones not in the movie. Neat trick.

Which leads me to what I thought the film got right, and why I ended up enjoying it so much. It nailed the main characters and their relationships. Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock were perfect, completely evoking the traits of the originals without ever imitating them outright. We're watching archetypes, not impressions. The writing is the thing here, as much as the acting: the writers really understood why the original Star Trek worked as drama, and they managed to translate that into the idiom of the new movie.

So as a movie, it worked really well: the characters and their relationships, the look and feel of the Enterprise, were great. And they were Star Trek. Most of all, the tone of the thing was Star Trek, and curiously it was the tone of the original Star Trek, rather than that of later series. It was the boldness, the sexiness of the original, rather than the polite competence of The Next Generation (which I also love, but for different reasons), the sardonic intrigue of Deep Space Nine (ditto). That itself makes me apprehensive: Whores, old buildings, and I guess old TV shows all get respectable with age, but I'd hate the price for Star Trek's new mainstream cool to be a swearing-off of all the glorious nerdiness that came in the '80s, '90s, and early '00s. Give me Ferengi, Trills, and Betazoids; give me holodecks and Ten Forward and the Maquis.

Bottom line: I don't think they needed a reboot, but they did it about as well as it could have been done in terms of Star Trek. And it's good just to see Star Trek going again. I've missed it.

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