Sunday, May 10, 2009

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek

(Warning: important story points discussed in close detail)

Have not the time to do a properly researched and reviewed post on the brand new Star Trek movie, so I suppose this will suffice for now.

Hated the action. I'd hope that J.J. Abrams' previous foray into feature filmmaking, Mission Impossible III would prove to be only an anomaly, but no, this is apparently the filmmaker's signature style: handicam footage so shaky only an epileptic viewer could make sense of it, cut together so swiftly and in such a confusing manner audiences have to watch the film twice to understand what's happening, who it's happening to, and why (which may be the intent all along).

I've seen better. Nicholas Meyer's The Wrath of Khan is funnier, more thrilling, more poignant overall (maybe it's my taste, but watching a bunch of kids find their destiny isn't half as moving as watching a bunch of aging has-beens realize their destiny has pretty much passed them by, or is at the point of doing so. Plus, of course, there's the treat of watching Kirk get his comeuppance--I mean, finally come to terms with the 'no-win scenario').

But it's more than a crotchety old fart thinking the old ways are best, I think (well, I hope). Two reasons why:

1) The action. Not just that Meyer took his time with his shots and edited them together coherently, but that he gave the battle sequences a distinct look and feel, like that of sailing ships of old. The Enterprise in Khan was shot and lit to look like a magnificent man-o'-war, with the engine nacelles resembling masts, and the control saucer tilting to the left or right like a mainsail.

It isn't just the resemblance; the ships moved like naval vessels, snuck past each other around a moon the way warships snuck around an island or peninsula. When they attacked, they slid past each other, cannons--sorry, phasers--blazing away; photon torpedoes weren't weightless SFX fireflies but resembled fiery cannonballs, with heft and momentum, and when they struck they slammed into a ship's hull with the proper destructiveness. These ships were massive, they had a sense of grandeur; they were relics of the past, brought to spectacular life.

The way the crew spoke about their ship carried the metaphor further; I'd catch Kirk yelling "swing her around!" to initiate another attack, or whispering "full stop," and wait like a dead fish for the enemy to surface (In space? But the metaphor's so strong and Meyer has you so caught up in the action you can't help but buy the idea).

It was different, is all; it offered an alternative to the Star Wars movies' headsplitting shock-n'-awe style of interstellar battle (which were based on an entirely different kind of battle: World War 2 aerial combat footage). One might think suspense and thrills are more difficult if one refused to resort to fast cutting, but no, I'd argue the opposite is true: it's actually easier to create suspense, build tension, and overall send a thrill up one's spine when the camera stays on a movement or action from beginning to end. One wonders (when the motion is started): will it succeed or fail? Will (while the motion is ongoing) it be interrupted? When the movement is concluded, one feels a surge of satisfaction, as if watching a crack crane operator successfully fit a thousand-pound steel beam into a particularly tricky slot.

Would like to go on the record and say that while I'm not a big fan of the shaky-cam, chop-suey editing style of filmmaking, I don't quite disapprove of all such practitioners. James Gray, for example, manages to employ handheld camerawork brilliantly in We Own the Night; Joss Whedon used a handheld camera in Serenity, but does so without the operator acting as if he were falling-down drunk. Whedon follows the action in Serenity, shoots it with clarity and coherence, pretty much treats it (as he should) like a musical dance number, where conveying a sense of the choreography is all-important (but then he did do "Once More with Feeling," which pretty much is a dance musical).

2) The cunning. In this latest film the solution is provided by a late addition to the cast, who comes almost literally out of nowhere. Yes, he did stay 'out of the way' so certain personages could kindle certain chemistries, but still, he had to hang around and provide hints and allegations as to the ultimate outcome. In Meyer's film no such person pops out of a magic box; Kirk and Spock pretty much have to deal with Khan as best they can, through sheer deviousness (remember that Meyer, who wrote the script, is a veteran at ingenious crackerjack storylines--H.G. Wells hunted Jack the Ripper in Time After Time; Sherlock Holmes met Sigmund Freud in The Seven Percent Solution. In The Undiscovered Country, the original Star Trek cast's final film, Meyer married current events (the collapse of the Soviet Union) with Holmes deductive techniques and a plot straight out of The Manchurian Candidate).

(Where is Meyer anyway--did he feel too old to do this sort of thing anymore? Ah, well)

Worse than the action or the science are the emotional implausibilities. Given that Nero's home planet was accidentally destroyed, that he's fallen through a black hole and gone back in time, wouldn't one's priority be to warn said home planet of impending doom? Granted one wants revenge, but shouldn't one do home planet first, maybe hand over advanced tech to one's family ancestors in the meantime, before risking life and limb on a bid for revenge (a bid, incidentally, that resembles in no small way Khan's obsession with Kirk in Wrath of Khan).

And given that an Academy rookie has tried to usurp one's position, and is more or less an all-around pain in the ass, isn't it a bit, well, excessive of Spock to maroon said rookie on a nearby planet? Yes, there's a Federation base eleven miles away (which you have to get past several nasty monsters to get to) and breathable air (but not a friendly climate; he should have been marooned near a more Jamaica-like environment), but whatever happened to the possibly quaint notion of confining the prisoner to his quarters? Does he consider Kirk that dangerous? If Spock could cite some provision in Academy law that allows him to do this then maybe, but far as I can remember he doesn't. Kirk had a basis for replacing Spock all the time, right there.

But still, but still. Abrams is worthless as an action director but unlike, say Christopher Nolan, he does fill his film to the brim with interesting ideas. I've heard it mentioned elsewhere that if you're going to do prequels, this is the way to do it, not, say, George Lucas' way.

But I'm being unfair to Star Trek. Star Wars is and has always been science fantasy, closer to Lord of the Rings than to real science fiction. Star Trek is science fiction--not great SF, not even scientifically accurate SF (the ships still make popping sounds when going into warp drive, and one wonders why with all that faster-than-light technology they still haven't invented seat belts), but at least a sincere stab at science fiction, with at least a cursory attempt to root some of the more outrageous ideas in scientific fact.

That 'red matter' business, for example--on paper it sounds like the film's silliest idea, but if one has read Larry Niven's "The Hole Man" it becomes a trifle less so (Niven doesn't actually suggest that you can siphon off quantum black holes, though, or float them around like so many interstellar vacuum cleaners, sweeping up pesky nova explosions).

And I may rag on Abrams for having Spock strand Kirk, and rag him further for the enormously ridiculous coincidence of having Kirk and the older Spock meet (of all planets, of all the ice caverns!), but here I think we go into mythmaking or fabulist territory. Younger Spock is right to maroon Young Kirk because the latter has to meet Older Spock; Young Kirk and Older Spock have to meet because Young Kirk needs Older Spock's advice (not to mention he's the last person in the universe we expected to see, and a great WTF moment). Older Spock giving advise to rookie Kirk is an idea far more entertaining and ingenious and resonant than say, 900 year old Yoda giving advise to either Obi-Wan Kenobi or Luke Skywalker (think of Odysseus consulting with the gods, or of King Arthur receiving guidance from Merlin--Abrams is linking Kirk and Spock to that kind of storytelling mojo). I can see Nimoy's Spock popping up once in a while to give sage or at least mysterious advice in succeeding instalments, maybe even popping into his own alternate reality to check in on aging Kirk to see how he's getting on. It's Spock as his own oracle. feeding him his own wisdom. Cool and narcissistic at the same time.

This is Star Trek despite all the revisions, and recognizably so, and here's my favorite reason why: Kirk and Spock are back. The eternal romance has been rekindled. "You are and always will be my friend"--who're ya kidding, ya sentimental Vulcan?! The two have been and always will be an item, and an eternal source of fascination--just hasn't been the same since Jean-Luc Picard and his bland o'brothers took over. Star Trek's appeal has been and always will be the homoerotic subtext--that, and the cheesy sets and costumes (Abrams got the costumes more or less right, wish he had the guts to go for cheesier sets). Star Wars has always aspired to be opera; its unforgivable crime for me is that it's dull opera, a charge you can't level against Kirk and Spock, one of the great gay-coded couples of pop culture (ideally the couple is completed in the next movie as a menage a trois, with McCoy as third wheel, competing with Spock for Kirk's attention--something this already long and busy movie couldn't include).

Ultimately, I approve. Not the best Trek film ever, not even the best feature film this 2009 (arguably that's either James Gray's Two Lovers--if you can consider it '09 and not '08--or Henry Selick's Coraline), but maybe the best blockbuster hit I've enjoyed in many a year. May it endure and flourish.

25 comments:

Quentin Tarantado said...
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Quentin Tarantado said...

Heh, you should delete cheap jordan shoes, he just spammed you. Spock Prime and young Kirk meeting may not be that incredible a coincidence. After all, they are BOTH in the Vulcan star system, Nero strands Spock Prime in what amounts to a ringside seat, so if Spock strands Kirk, the two would be bound to meet. Also, I'd say Spock may not have done a very extreme thing. Spock knows putting Kirk in the brig probably won't work. Kirk is too resourceful (heck, marooning Kirk didn't work either). Kirk's lifeboat computer advised that he should stay in his ship till help comes. Kirk ignored the warning. Nero, well, I think he's just consumed with piss and wants to do the same to Vulcans, I mean, he did say in the start he does not act for the Romulan Empire. And this might be a cheat but I read elsewhere that Nero was captured in a Vulcan prison planet so that's where he was stuck for 25 years to stew until he escaped (was cut from the final cut, but I think you can see a little bit of his escape in Spock's mind-meld) and the escape was hinted at when Uhura intercepted the news that Klingon ships were being blown up. That's Nero escaping.

Noel Vera said...

1) S and K just met and S doesn't know much more about K except that he's resourceful enough to sneak on board.

True this means he can't take K for granted, but S is smart enought to figure out K had help, and that it was Mc who helped him. When S put his foot down he saw that Mc was on his side. S should have guessed K would be less effective on his own and would only need an armed guard to keep him locked up. Least that's how I see it.

2) Nero--yeah, doesn't speak well of Romulans, does it?

Noel Vera said...

Come to think of it, Khan had a similar moment. "Sir--consider: you have Genesis and a working starship. You have proven your superior intellect."

And Khan rejected the proposal. "He tasks me; he task me and I must have him."

Hey, it's the oldest trick in the book; mention the problematical issue and it seems as if it's been solved. Meyer was smart enough to do that. Abrams and family didn't even try.

dayuhangkayumanggi said...

Loved the movie though...

I'm not a Trekkie (old or new) but the film certainly did a bang-up job of hooking newbies into an aging franchise (while rendering fanboys all misty-eyed)...so why argue?

Sure, the contrivances are all to obvious (time travel deus-ex-machinae anyone?) but I did get a kick out of the humor (even the unintentional ones)

Noel Vera said...

Why bend over and spread your cheeks so passively?

It's a matter of perspective. As in--I don't believe in perfection, I don't believe in watching movies unquestioningly, I don't believe in lowering standards.

But hey, that's me.

missingpoints said...

I thought the "red matter" thing was taken from Arthur Clarke's "asymptotic drive" in the Imperial Earth series. But more likely it's Abrams inserting his signature stuff. Slusho was there, and the big floating ball was from "Alias'" first season.

Noel Vera said...

Imperial Earth was published in time for the US Bicentennail, a year after The Hole Man. Either Clarke borrowed the idea from Niven or both came up with the same idea. Niven's science is more explicit, though, and I thought more convincing.

Noel Vera said...

Incidentally, when it comes to none-shaky cam, non-frenzied editing style in action sequences, got to check out Come Drink With Me. Those hand-to-hand combat sequences knock anything Nolan, Abrams or Greengrass could ever come up with.

J. said...

Regarding the shaky cam. I'd say the visual syntax has changed for films, and it's been changed by video games.

Check it out, see if younger people have issues with following the action.

The old syntax was just one step removed from a theatrical presentation.

Noel Vera said...

I mentioned in the post that I thought shaky cam per se isn't bad; James Gray proved it and so does Joss Whedon.

Handheld cameras (as it's properly called) were the tool of choice of the French New Wave and of early Kubrick; Cecille B. DeMille made use of it in his '27 King of Kings. And of course documentary filmmakers have used it since forever. If video games use the handheld shot, I'm guessing that's because they're imitating the work of documentary filmmakers.

That said, doc filmmakers don't shake it till the roaches fall off. Using handheld is a choice, shaking it excessively an indulgence.

Quentin Tarantado said...

Spock met Kirk even earlier. Kirk cheated in Spock's "Kobeyashi Maru" test. Spock isn't underestimating Kirk, marooning him to a Federation Outpost might be safer (turns out it isn't). Kirk is worse than Jason in Friday the 13th or the aliens in Aliens.

Quentin Tarantado said...

And may I add, MAYBE, the reason why Nero (in a very advanced, powerful ship) got caught by the Klingons is George Kirk's sacrifice. It disabled Nero's ship enough for the Klingons to catch Nero and hold him for 25 years. Nero escaped, destroyed 47 Klingon warships and went back to the wormhole to catch Spock Prime.

the crew of Unfaithful said...

:-)

Noel Vera said...

Not saying that's not what happened, but if you took all that conjecture away the movie'd still work. Occam's Razor, or the K.I.S.S. principle.

If Spock knows Kirk he ought to know how to neutralize Kirk without endangering his life, or going to such extreme lengths.

At the very least, there should be some brief exchange (pre-emptive discussion a la Meyer) where Spock considers his options. "Confine him to brig?" "No; he cheated the no-win scenario, got aboard the ship somehow. We need to do something more than that."

Something like that.

missingpoints said...

^ "Hanging a lantern" :))

Noel Vera said...

In effect.

Anonymous said...

Never watched the Star Trek television series. The dialogue about Klingons (when I first heard it, I thought it was "cling ons") went over my head. I had no idea what was being talked about. Now I know. Anyway, I very much liked the movie. I liked the fact that the film didn't take the mythology/technicality too seriously; the characters were more important than the special effects and the backstory. I agree, though, that the action sequences are too shaky and shot too fast. In a way, this MTV-style of action defeats the purpose of showcasing the choreography: instead of showing the whole thing, we just get glimpses, a limb here, a jaw there. ........I hope when they come up with the sequel (2011 daw), J.J. Abrams will still not take the Star Trek mythology too seriously and will focus, as he did now, on the characters. Dennis.

Anonymous said...

I haven't followed the TV series of this film but I heard J.J. Abrams wasn't so much doing a recopying of the series as he was trying to get an inspiration from it in making the movie version. Also, i heard bad reviews about the lens flare effects done during most of the dialogue scenes. And that source's probably right, what's with all that stuff? ANyway, this blog's a good inclusion in my list of good reviewers. Good job.


-Spock!Mesa Boogie Yourself, ESP Man!

missingpoints said...

^ Dude, the future's too bright, JJ's camera can't capture it :))

Noel Vera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noel Vera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noel Vera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noel Vera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noel Vera said...

Tell me about it!

I'm not against limbs here, glimpse there either; Orson Welles used it to masterful effect in the tremendous Battle of Shrewsbury sequence in his masterpiece, Chimes at Midnight. Quick shots, edited seamlessly together, one of the greatest battle sequences ever filmed (lemme put it this way: They tried to improve on this battle sequence in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; didn't happen).

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