(As kind of makeshift tribute to the late Vulcan, I use arguably the best film he's ever done to bash the remake--affectionately, affectionately, of course. You can I suppose visualize the scale and intensity of my regard for the former, from the scale and intensity of the dents on the latter)
(Warning: important story points discussed in close detail!)
The rap on Khan
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 in We Own the Night to suggest life suddenly slipping out of control; Joss Whedon used handheld camerawork in Serenity to suggest immediacy, the sense of being in the middle of the action (as opposed to being staggering drunk). Whedon shoots with clarity and coherence, treating the action like dance numbers where choreography is paramount (he did do "Once More with Feeling," which is pretty much 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.