Friday, May 08, 2009

Nu Trek

Most of my friends are well aware that I set my expectations for the new Star Trek prequel very low. I’ve argued for a long time that I feel the franchise needs to be rested for a good few years following some really poor showings (Enterprise, Nemesis and Insurrection).

However, even I held out a glimmer of hope that I would find some snippet of hope in JJ Abrams’ new flick. And now, I’ve returned from the cinema in a state of shock. I have never walked out of a film and I’ve seen some pretty woeful movies in my time. After 10 minutes of Star Trek I seriously wanted to leave, the only thing that kept me going was having a fellow fan by my side to share in my pain.

For those not in the know, this prequel charts the backstory of our favourite characters; Kirk, Spock, Bones et al. But there’s a twist. Some evil Romulan from the future has travelled back in time to a point before Kirk was born and changed history. The result is a useful plot device which explains away why Kirk is not at all like the character William Shatner portrayed with such ham and dedication for 30 years.

To be fair, I don’t have an issue with changing characters backstory. Battlestar Galactica was re-imagined to stunning effect. Sadly, JJ Abrams is no Ron Moore. Rather he is beginning to show signs of George Lucas syndrome and as a result may be believing too much in his own hype.

There is no snippet of hope in this film. It is worse than even I had felt possible and symbolises everything that is currently wrong with the Hollywood film industry and its treatment of Science Fiction in particular.

Don’t get me wrong, Star Trek will make a fortune. It will quite easily be the most successful Trek movie in history and will therefore be regarded as a commercial success. But such success comes at a price for some Star Trek fans. I say some, because there are many flavours of Trek fans. There are those who will love this film because it is full of action and pithy one-liners.

Sadly, I’m not one of those fans. I was one of those kids who grew up watching science fiction that places storytelling at the heart of every episode. Sure even Trek of old contained action and ham-fisted dialogue, but these were a necessity of the TV industry. Without such action and drama, the show would have been too cerebral to garner the army of fans it built over 4 decades.

The thing that made Star Trek (and many other popular Sci-Fi shows of the time) so appealing, was that it found a balance between the needs of the studio (who required high peril and action drama) and the needs of the storyteller (who wanted to make the viewer think).

And this is where Hollywood has lost its edge. It has forsaken storytelling in favour of meaningless action, bland dialogue and an abundance of special effects. “Big budget” movies have become indistinguishable from one another. Transformers and this new Star Trek are the same film. Continuous action, limited dialogue and a very basic plot that can be explained in a one line pitch to a studio executive who has no prior knowledge of the craft.

“Robots crashland on Earth and battle each other against the backdrop of beautiful cityscapes and vistas”

“An evil alien goes back in time to avenge the destruction of his race, by wiping out humanity using an overly elaborate cgi MacGuffin”

Star Trek is virtually non-stop action for the entirety of its 126 minutes. The only time the action stops is for some brief attempts at comedy (Kirk goes into comic anaphylactic shock; Sulu forgets to start the engine of the starship; Chekov fails to pronounce his “Vs”. Everyone laugh!!). Sadly, because these comic moments all follow on from one another at high speed, the result is slapstick; Slapstick during a time of intergalactic crisis. Errrr!

The vast portion of the movie is overlaid with an almost continuous OTT soundtrack that is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Even the brief moments of attempted poignancy are coupled with a sappy score that again detracts from what is going on.

The acting is incredibly laboured, but I’ll avoid blaming the actors for this. They can only do so much with the material that is at their disposal. And the material is, quite frankly, not worthy of lining a real writers waste paper bin. A common forum post that appears whenever Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are announced as writers for a new project is “Hollywood: STOP GIVING WRITING JOBS TO THESE GUYS”. But it’s obvious why they get the gigs. They write commercially successful films (Transformers, MI:3… err The Island… err The Legend of Zorro). OK, so not all of them are successful, but they have recently had a somewhat golden dollar shaped touch.

The villain of Star Trek (Romulan Nero) is as one-dimensional as the plot. He is there purely to offer a threat and offers no other depth than a desire for vengeance, explained in a classic “Let me tell you my devious plan” moment. His eventual demise sums up this new movies complete deviation from the high principles of Star Trek, as Spock (and his proxy, Kirk) chooses to slaughter him in an act of vengeance that I had to see to believe.

The original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) makes an appearance which, I have to admit, was nice to see. Unfortunately, it too served only to highlight the lack of gravitas Zachary Quinto brings to the Young Spock role. I’m just glad Shatner didn’t get his way and make a cameo!

The final minute gives us the immortal Trek tagline, spoken wistfully by Leonard Nimoy. As the words echoed around the cinema, (“…to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life forms and new civilisations…”) I realised how out of place they seemed in this film. That final act is tacked on to provide a link to the past but in reality only serves to symbolise the complete opposites that this movie is and Star Trek of old, was. JJ Abrams’ Trek is nothing more than a jingoistic American ass-whupping in space. He may have splattered it with familiar names and shown us “the truth” behind famous stories (the Kobyashi Maru test), but JJ has failed to actually see what Star Trek is.

Star Trek will garner a new generation of fans with this film and its planned sequels. However, does anyone really believe that these fans will take the time to revisit the roots of Star Trek? Worse still, is it not more likely that these modern fans will be so fickle that they will jump from Star Trek to the next “Big Thing” that comes along? Afterall, these new fans are the same people that have just jumped from Transformers (via Indiana Jones 4) to Star Trek.

I’m happy to leave this “nu Trek” to the low attention span audience it deserves. I won’t be watching the sequel.

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