Friday, June 5, 2009

Boldly Going Nowhere Particularly Interesting

Oh, J. J. Abrams. If the sci-fi world is a battlefield, you're packing the biggest Nerf gun in your platoon. Travelling at "warp speed" and "reinvigorating the franchise" with "slam-bang, kick your mother in the face" action, J. J. Abrams' new "Star Trek" is tearing up the box office these days.

I have no idea why.

Do not misunderstand me: The film holds a special place in my heart. Never before has a movie allowed my mind to wander during its climactic final battle. J. J. Abrams has pretty much mastered the mediocre. I found myself caring almost as little in his last attempt, "Mission Impossible III." The man does not patently suck like, say, Michael Bay does but he certainly draws from the same bag of tricks. "Star Trek" is rife with ridiculously elaborate special effects, melodramatic close ups and slick, "How many lens flares can we fit in one shot?" cinematography. Given the popularity of this movie with critics, however, it may be more insidious than Michael Bay's typical shenanigans.

Blame the screenwriters for that. For, where J. J. Abrams is mediocre, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are plain dumb. The only real achievement these two have made with "Star Trek" is the impressive feat of convolution that prevents the film from stepping all over the original "Star Trek" universe. Who, though, really gives a shit? If the movie was any good, trekkers would not be in any place to bitch about changing things and, the way things turned out, it seems like the entirety of the plot centers on explaining this continuity loophole. This could explain why the movie felt like little more than a first act. The first two hours are all set up, then (oh yeah) the bad guy falls down a giant tube. That's not a movie; it's a really long commercial for the sequel... that you pay to watch.

The note about the giant tube brings me to my next point: Is this really "Star Trek?" As I was watching a smug pretty-boy getting chased around an ice planet by a giant monster, I genuinely believed that, instead of a "Star Trek" reboot, I was watching the best "Star Wars" prequel yet. As a continuation of the "Star Trek" franchise, however, this movie is as limp as they come. There is not a shred of science to be found here (lots of sparkly production design, but no science). The new Starfleet is not convincing as a military organization for a second, with recruits constantly mouthing off to superiors and hooking up with each other in the elevators. More importantly, there are not any real ideas fueling the film; the writers clearly find hormonal idiocy more interesting than real drama.

The original "Star Trek" series was rife with social commentary. The casting itself made a bold statement about the type of ideas the franchise pursued. The introduction of color television gained a bit of symbolic value as the Enterprise's unabashedly multicultural crew changed the way TV looked. "Star Trek" presented an Earth where our cultures had fully accepted one another, but faced a new challenge: relating to people from other worlds. It was potent stuff and it made the series great. So, what did Kurtzman and Orci do with it? They made Chekov's Russian accent a punchline and they made Sulu do flips while fighting with a ninja sword. Critics seem to love how Uhura has been developed. She used to do little more than look pretty and answer the phones. What about the new and improved Uhura? She runs around in her bra and has heightened "oral sensitivity." My, how far we've come.

That is not to take away from the quality of the cast. Chris Pine makes the snotty, new Captain Kirk far more likable than expected. Zachary Quinto does Spock justice, even if the writers fail to develop him in any compelling way. The rest of the crew admirably emulates their predecessors, despite getting little opportunity to do more. Perhaps they are the reason Paramount has gotten so lucky with this one. (The special effects may have something to do with it, as well.) If Abrams and his lazy writers are replaced for the inevitable sequel (highly unlikely), it may be a worthwhile film. Until then, I think I will wait for the "I Love Lucy" reboot. I hear they are getting Roland Emmerich to do it.

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