Saturday, May 09, 2009

Star Trek: The Popcorn Generation

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as the pools of alcohol spilled on the floor during the barfight near the Starfleet shipyard)

The new Trek prequel is a great summer popcorn movie. Not a Star Trek movie, but a great popcorn flick.

The story... well, you can get the summary pretty much anywhere. What concerns me most is the run-down of the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good:
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban all, to varying degrees, did good jobs with the characters of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Pine, especially, is to be applauded for seasoning his performances with dashes of Shat every now and then (a cocky strutt, an arrogant lounge in the command chair, the occasional inflection in his voice) without letting those tendencies dominate and thus ruin the character. Urban's Bones was suitably grumbly, but what I liked best of all was the explanation for his character being in Starfleet in the first place, when McCoy never really seemed like the military type. Quinto, for his part, played a more emotional Spock than Nimoy ever did back in the old days, but he gave the character enough tension to make for a good Spock, even if it was not in a direction to create the Spock that we all recognize.

As for the supporting characters, John Cho kicked ass as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin's boyish exuberance worked well for Chekov (and with a real Russian accent, no less!). Uhura and Scotty, like Spock were slightly problematic in that they were different than the original characters. This Uhura is far more sassy and in-you-face, and less self-assured than her template from the orginal series. And where the old Scotty had a natural humour (with the exception of the dumb moment in The Final Frontier where they had him knock himself cold on a metal brace), this one is very much a clown. And yet, like with Quinto's performance, Zoe Saldana and Simon Pegg gave us characters that while different, were worth watching.

Nice to see an older Spock too who has continued to become more comfortable with his emotions and emotional situations, creating a middle path for himself between Vulcan absolute logic and the wild human ways.

From a pacing perspective, the prequel was the thrill-ride a modern audience expects for its summer popcorn dollars. Look away for a minute when you spill your popcorn, and you'll miss something flashy.

And speaking of flashy, this flick certainly loves its flashy vehicles: shiny red convertables that get dumped in a quarry, cool futuristic motorbikes, and, of course the Enterprise herself, with a new glowing-so-white-it-almost-hurts-your-eyes bridge with lots of gleaming metallic trim on the controls. One of the things I really liked about this Enterprise was that it looked big. I mean really big. Lots of shots of cavernous rooms and a huge shuttle bay. In most Trek franchise installments, you only get cramped hallways and the occasional spacious meeting room. Only Star Trek: The Motion Picture ever really gave a sense of the sheer bulk of the old (or, in that case, new - or renewed) girl with its shuttle/cargo bay, rec deck and engineering scenes. But here we're reminded that Enterprise isn't just pretty, she's downright huge.

And what movie with flash would be complete without big explosions? This film certainly loves to make things go kablooey: cars, ships of all sizes, even planets and a star. A whole scale of devastation to fit your level of destructive appetite.

But the movie was impressive for a lot of its little touches and fond nods towards the old series too. Uhura's earpiece for one. And speaking of ears, who didn't squirm uncomfortably when that large-mandibled mind slug made an appearance - except it wasn't the ear this ugly sucker was burrowing into this time. Or how about the Red Shirt buying it on the away mission? Or the Kobayashi Maru test? Even Kirk bedding the hot Orion girl (although this certainly is a different universe if Orions let their slave girls apply to the Federation military, or that the Starfleet of the Kirk era accepts their applications) was a nice nod (or is that nudge-nudge-wink-wink) to the old series and the character's proclivities.

I also approved of the fact that this is a parallel reality to the Trek we all know and love. As soon as Nero came back in time, the future that the old Spock new was gone/different/shifted - the characters are now proceeding along a different track of existence. From about mid-film, when this is mentioned, onward, we're dealing with a different animal. From that point onward, the franchise became free to do whatever it wants to without impinging on the existing canon.

The Bad:
But while this may have been a damn fine action movie, it still, to my mind, wasn't a Star Trek movie. Amidst all the running away from ice planet monsters and explosions, there wasn't time for philosophical exploration. And that's always been a hallmark of Trek, whether you're talking about the original series, the movies (even the bad ones) or the spinoff series. While there were installments that were heavy on action (The Wrath of Khan, The Undiscovered Country, First Contact, Nemesis, and that's not even counting many episodes of Next Generation, DS9 or Voyager), Trek stories have always taken the time to reflect on the questions posed by the situations the characters find themselves in: what does it mean to be human? what are the bounds of revenge? what are the limits of our science? There's barely time for this movie to catch its breath, and no time at all for any degree of introspection or discussion. In some respects, it reminded me of a dumbed-down version of the Voyager episode Year of Hell, where a man in a big-ass ship out of time tries to change the past to protect his planet, and more importantly, his wife, in the future. This film was elements of Trek served up as Die Hard fast food rather than a full, multi-course Trek banquet. Don't get me wrong, this was good fast food, but not Trek.

Then there was Nero's mining ship-turned-avenging-angel-of-death-warship. Now, I would expect an interstellar mining ship to be a fairly large piece of equipment. The scale of the Red Dwarf, for example, makes sense. One would need to have a lot of equipment to tear apart asteroids and moons and things and process them, and plenty of room to store the valuable material. And we know from the other Trek shows that ships tend to get bigger as the years go by (with the exception of Voyager and Defiant). But Nero's tub was ridiculously large. I mean, this big-ass prospector could have intimidated V'Ger! This sucker is so damn big that a massive, close-range volley from the Kelvin fails to cause significant damage - in fact, the detonation of the Kelvin itself within the miner's structure fails to do more than inconvenience it for a while - and we're talking about an explosion that should have generated a shock-wave the size of the one at the end that propels Enterprise away from the black hole (although consistancy isn't really the strong point of action films). That's just unbelievably large and powerful for a blue-collar working vessel. Even the Scimitar from Nemesis couldn't stand up to punishment like that. And where did Nero's boat get so many weapons? That looked too heavily armed for a miner. Unless, of course, Nero was, to borrow a dwarven phrase from a book in the Dragonlance series that I read as a teen, was "looking to the left side of his tools" - using his mining equipment in unorthodox and aggressive ways it wasn't intended for. This explanation is never given, but I would certainly hope that's the case. Really, with the degree of paranoia within the Romulan Empire that's always been hinted at, you'd think the last thing the Romulan hierarchy would ever want would be the working class to have gigantic ships that are armed to the teeth that could allow them to stage revolutions, etc.

And speaking of armaments, where were the planetary defences of Vulcan and Earth? Sure, both are, at least officially, peaceful worlds, but if there's enough danger in the galaxy to warrant armaments on their vessels, you'd think they'd have orbital defence platforms and heavy ground-based defences that could at least pose enough of a problem to slow Nero down before he lowered his planet-plunger into the atmosphere for any old skydiver with attitude to sabotage.

Also, I'm no astronomer or geologist, so maybe I'm out to lunch here, but doesn't the planet Vulcan behave a little oddly for a world that's just had a hole bored into its core? It's just an open hole, waiting for a bomb to get dropped in it. But rather than just being a pit, unless Vulcan is tectonically dead and solid right through to its core, wouldn't there be all kinds of magma underneath the crust that would come oozing up to the surface? Rather than an empty hole, wouldn't Nero just have created a nicely-sized volcano that would roast his bomb, rather than facilitating its descent?

Speaking of the behaviour of large objects, what was the deal with the Supernova in the future that Spock says threatened to "destroy the galaxy"? The whole damn galaxy? Really? I've read a little about supernovae potentially posing threats to neighbouring star systems, depending on their distances, but I doubt the whole galaxy would be in danger. If so, we wouldn't have a galaxy - it would have been destroyed a long time ago by previous supernovae - in fact, there wouldn't be any nebulae to spawn new stars and planets if there weren't these cosmic catastrophes that occur once in a while (catastrophes that don't, by the way, destroy the galaxy). Why not just have elder Spock say that a supernova in a nearby star system threatened Romulus, and since he was in the area anyway, he offered to help? Why does the whole galaxy have to be at risk? And if Romulus had enough advance notice that the blast wave was coming (enough time for Spock & co to hear about it, formulate a plan, develop black-hole-making technology in a convenient package, and install it aboard their fastest ship), why wouldn't its government use its military, its supply of civilian ships - including this apparent supply of big-ass mining ships with lots of empty atmosphered space and funky terraces to hang out on - and maybe ask for the help of Vulcan and the rest of the Federation, to stage an evacuation of the planet? What's with this sitting around with their thumbs up their asses waiting for Spock to save the day in a one-shot deal?

But dumb seems to be the order of the day with these Romulans of the future. This brings me to my final criticism: of Nero himself. The man is apparently an idiot. Okay, he's Romulan, which means he's a tad emotional by nature, and thus potentially prone to making the odd rash decision. That might excuse his attack on the Kelvin when he finds himself dragged into the past right after watching Romulus get destroyed and his wife killed. It doesn't explain his course of action throughout the rest of the movie. You'd think, after his vulcanoid rage had a chance to cool a little after that first bloodletting, that he'd realize that the destruction of his world and the death of his wife were not the fault of Spock or Vulcan or Earth and the Federation or anybody else. A natural catastrophe destroyed his planet. It would have done so if Spock had done nothing. He might as well have blamed the Tribbles as much as Spock. And wouldn't that have made an interesting film: a gang of blue-collar Romulans changing history by wiping out the Tribbles before the Klingons had a chance to. Ooooooh.

But seriously, to be the captain of a mining ship, you'd have to be a reasonably smart person (knowledgable of ship operations, mining procedures and risks, crew management, etc). You'd think that after he calmed down a little, Nero would figure out that he could take advantage of being in the past in a very practical and helpful way. What's the point of changing the future by wiping out the Federation (including Vulcan and Earth)? Will that stop the supernova in the future or save his wife? No. A smart man, unlike Nero, would have said "Gee, maybe I can rev-up my big-ass ship and set a course for Romulus. I'll convince the powers-that-be that I'm from the future, and warn them of the impending natural disaster. That way, when that nasty star goes boom, they'll be ready to evacuate everyone, and my wife, if not my world, will be saved. And, of course, in the process he'd be giving the Romulan Empire of today his technology of tomorrow, which it could use to stomp on all of its rivals now. But does Nero do this? Nope.

But let's say he's still too honked-off to realize he can warn his people 130 years ahead of time. There's still another opportunity to come out of this thing a hero: once Spock finally caught up with him in the past, Nero, having taken Spock and his ship and his do-it-yourself-home-black-hole-kit, could have set a course for the offending star that would go boom more than a century hence and destroy his world and kill his wife, and create a singularity that would destroy said offending star before it was ever a threat. If he wiped-out the star in the past, it couldn't explode in the future and yadda yadda yadda. In fact, you can imagine Nero and Spock having a conversation to that effect:
Nero: "Now I've got you, Spock!"
Spock: "Well, yes. Apparently so."
Nero: "That's right! So what do you have to say about it? Huh?"
Spock: "I'd say that having me, you also have my ship."
Nero: "That's right, bucko, I've got your ship! It's on terrace 93 in big open air-filled space 12 in section 149 of my big-ass ship!"
Spock: "Does it still have my singularity-in-a-can?"
Nero: "You betcha! Now that Lipton Cup-o-black-hole is all mine!"
Spock: "Have you used it to destroy the star?"
Nero: "I'm going to use it! Hah! I'm going to use it to destroy - hey, wait a minute, what did you say?"
Spock: "Have you used it to pre-emptively destroy the star that in the future will annihilate Romulus?"
Nero: "Um. I guess... Well... No. Hadn't thought of that, actually."
Spock: "Well, maybe, you know..."
Nero: "Yeah. Yeah, actually, you're right. I guess I could shit-can that star before it has a chance to blow up and take-out Romulus. Or, if it's already blown up, then I could at least get rid of the blast wave before it gets anywhere near my world. Then maybe you could use your genius to figure out how to get us home to the future."
And so on and so forth. But that doesn't happen. Nope. Nero's gotta go on a rampage, and one that not only gets him killed, but fails to do anything remotely positive for his people or his wife. Looking back at the Year of Hell example, as a Captain Nemo-like figure, Eric Bana's Nero fails miserably. He's just a dumb mad dog running around biting anything it sees. Kurtwood Smith's captain, on the other hand, while obsessed to the point of madness and willing to sacrifice anything to regain his planet's place in the galaxy and return his wife to life, at least had depth and was able to carry on conversations that didn't end with a scream of rage. Smith's captain was extremely intelligent and showed varied feelings and gave a real sense that his lost wife meant something to him and that a part of him was struggling with what he was doing. Nero has none of that and is only a villain-of-the-week who is ultimately forgettable as a character.

That being said, I do have to go back to my original point in this review that the new Star Trek prequel is eminently watchable as an action film, if not a Star Trek movie. It's watchable enough, in fact, that I'm going to see it again next week with some friends and I suspect I'll buy it when it's finally out on DVD. My hope is that if the franchise continues, they'll add some brains to this hefty assemblage of brawn.
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