Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I finally saw the new Star Trek films - and they were worse than I could have ever imagined

I like Star Trek.  A lot.  I'm one of those nerds who can tell you which episode number certain lines or plots are from - or at least which episode title.  I regularly make profoundly awful Star Trek jokes to anyone who might happen to understand them.  I once spent $700 on a Star Trek costume which I am now condemned to wear every year for Halloween without the possibility of reprieve or parole for the rest of my natural life in order to justify.  I even constructed that last sentence as a quote from one of the movies.

Yet I refused to pay for or even watch the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot films for five years.  They were changing my Star Trek.  How dare they.  My objections ranged from the superficial and ad hominem (TOO MANY LENS FLARES) to the deep and almost philosophical.  In any case, after my own personal 5 year mission to stay as far away from these films as possible, I finally broke down and finally watched both the new Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.  My conclusion?

These films are worse than I ever expected.

Yes, I was predisposed to hate these things, but hear me out.  After 5 years of refusing to have anything to do with Abrams' Trek, advancing in my life in general, and getting engaged to the most wonderful woman alive, I was able to gain enough perspective on just how important this stuff really is to look at the films objectively.  I resigned myself to the fact that they were going to destroy the second most important planet in all of Trek Lore.  I decided it was OK that they gave everything a different aesthetic (iBridge!).  I accepted that they were going to make a lot of piddly changes to established canon.  Taking all of this as a given, I decided to watch the films expecting nothing more than Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew flying around space and saving the galaxy. In the end, I'm convinced that these films are terrible both as a Star Trek reboot and even simply as films.

First, the characters are simply wrong (this will be the longest point, since its the most important).  Now in one sense, this complaint is one of hanging on to my old beloved Star Trek.  Yes, I am comparing these "new" characters to the old.  Yet at the same time, the identity of the characters is what makes it a Star Trek at all.  Even the filmmakers made this point in explaining why they decided to make this new incarnation of Trek.  The characters were what made Star Trek, they said, but there was too much established canon to be able to tell new and creative stories with them. They wanted to keep the characters - which were the heart of Star Trek - and ditch the reams of established story limiting what they could do with them.  While I disagree that this was a problem, fair enough.

The characters, we were told, had reached such iconic cultural status that they could be rebooted and retold and re-presented.  They were compared to Batman, Superman, and other such characters of such immense and permanent cultural significance that their stories were retold and retold and retold.  Again, fair enough.  Yet this means that the characters are that anchor which keeps Star Trek as, well, Star Trek.  There are many differences between the gritty Batman films of the early 90s, the new Christopher Nolan reboot, and the campy 1960s Adam West version, but the characters are the anchor.  In each, Bruce Wayne is a charming wealthy playboy who lost his parents to a killer at a young age.  He is entrepreneurial, ingenious, and a loner to all but his faithful servant Alfred.  As Batman, he his charm turns to grit.  Even in the goofy 1960s rendition, there is a still a tough, square-jawed attitude that West takes on as Batman - which is what makes the ridiculous lines that he delivers so deliciously campy.  Can anyone imagine a version of Batman in which the Caped Crusader were cowardly, a Wolverine who was patient, or a Captain America who was unjust?  Of course not.  It is the personality of these characters which ties them together through each incarnation and identifies them as who they are.

Yet Abrams' Star Trek and it's follow up Into Darkness get the characters almost universally wrong.  The James T. Kirk of 79 television episodes and 7 films was controlled, pragmatic, and confident.  Christopher Pine's version is wild, impulsive, and portrays a facade of arrogance while harboring nothing short of helplessness under the surface.  The original Kirk was a man of order and command structure, obedient to the chain of command and respecting of the rules and regulations.  He took liberties from time to time, to be sure, but for the new Kirk it is not the liberties but the obedience which happens only from time to time.
Nimoy's Spock was a half-Vulcan you'd never know had any humanity in him until well over 80 hours into his total screen time, logical to a fault, adamant to follow the regulations.  Quinto's Spock is - even before his planet is destroyed - bubbling over with emotions just under the surface and so given to them that he, as an instructor at Starfleet academy, has apparently been having a clandestine relationship with a cadet in Uhura.  The portrayal of Scotty in the new films is nothing short of an insult to the memory of James Doohan.  I don't blame Simon Pegg, who does a brilliant job with the character he was asked to create, but with whoever decided that Scotty should be an utter buffoon, asking for sandwiches in the midst of a blistering assault and bouncing around engineering as he makes repairs more like Batman's Joker than the dignified, proud engineer of the old Trek.

Yet here lies perhaps a clue to just what went so abysmally wrong with these new characters.  The original Scotty certainly had his moments of humor, and he did provide some dignified comic relief from time to time, but, as I said, dignified, and refined - nothing like what Pegg's character offers.  The original Kirk also had his moments of being out of control with emotions, or impulsive, or ignoring a regulation - but these were rare.  Spock's humanity came to the fore on some rare occasion when he was moved by some powerful force.  These behaviors and personality traits were always within the crew of the Enterprise, but they came out only when provoked or pushed.  This is what made them whole and complete characters  - because they had depth and complexities to their personalities, just like real people.  We all have a personality and a manner which is with us most of the time, and deep within flaws, eccentricities, and extremes which come out in specific circumstances.  We all have a family member or friend who is a kind and generous person most of the time, but can become impatient or aggressive when pushed just right.  We have all known a gruff, distant person who on some rare instance shows a tenderness and sense of humanity we did not expect.  This is how real people are, and these complexities are what make great characters.

Upon being hired to direct the new Trek, J.J. Abrams said that he didn't much like Star Trek or know about it.  The truth is, it very much feels like someone watched through the original series and films to learn about the characters but came away understanding only the extremes of their characters without taking the time to grasp the core of their personalities.  The result is that the characters in the reboot seem like caricatures of the original, which ruins it from the perspective of a reboot.  It's like watching some surreal version of Batman where the Joker is almost entirely sane, as if someone took those rare moments of sanity that he could be moved to and built the entire character as though it were all he was.  It also means that, leaving aside the identity of these films as a reboot of established characters, they just aren't very good films to stand on their own: the characters have no core, no depth.

Beyond the individual characters, the crew as a whole also seems to have one major problem: they are entirely inept.  I realize that the plot of the first film involves a bunch of cadets being asked to step up and respond to a threat, but even by the second film the entire crew seems like they have no idea what they're doing.  From the standpoint of a film standing on its own, this gets so bad that the suspension of disbelief necessary for any kind of science fiction film is lost simply because I can't imagine any professional ship's crew seeming like they have so little sense of how to do their jobs.  From the standpoint of a film that is supposed to be a version of Star Trek, it also fails because of how little professional decorum the Abrams crew has.  In every series and film, the crew operates within a clear command structure: the captain and first officer give orders, the rest of the crew follows them and speak when asked for input.  Far too often, the new Trek comes across more like a group of friends with no clear leader all trying to figure a situation out together.  The new Trek feels too much like The Goonies in this regard.

Moving onto some issues which have purely to do with these films in and of themselves (and unrelated to any of the "old" Star Trek), I first have to criticize the acting.  I thought that it was awful.  There were some strong performances - I've already mentioned Simon Pegg playing a terrible version of Scotty, but playing it very well.  Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as always in the sequel. Unfortunately, there were also some awful ones.  Christopher Pine's Kirk reminds me a bit too much of Danielle Radcliffe doing his very best to channel angst and grossly overdoing it.  Quinto's portrayal of Spock didn't so much feel emotionless as mechanical and bland.  Very disappointing was Urban's McCoy, especially because of how much praise reviews gave to his performance.  I may be the only one, but I did not think Urban was channeling Deforest Kelley - by any means.  His attempts at the southern doctor struck me as very overplayed.  Frankly, it seemed to me what a mediocre impression artist would do for McCoy.

Shockingly, Leonard Nimoy's acting was also bad - atrocious, even - but for this I blame the writing.  I do this not out of some kind of fanboyism for Nimoy, but only because I have seen him act more than enough to know his ability, and in watching those scenes of his in the new films, the dialogue he is asked to offer is so painfully bad that I sincerely do not believe there was much to be done with it.  As I see it, Nimoy's acting is not so much a mark against the film's acting in general, but against it's writing.  In particular, his monologue in the first film is so poorly written that it rings more of a child playacting with action figures than a script reading in a major motion picture.

From this note, I will segue into my final issue with the films: the plots and writing simply simply do not have the internal consistency or coherence to be rated as anything beyond mediocre.  In what world does a cadet undergoing a hearing for possible expulsion get promoted to first officer - even temporarily?  What's worse, in what circumstances does he then get designated permanent captain, not only of any old ship, but the fleet's new flag ship?  Sorry, Sulu.  Sorry, Chekov, Spock, and every other officer in the fleet: you have to work your way up the chain of command, but not Kirk.  This plot point alone is sufficient to render the film more middle-school fan-fiction than anything to be taken seriously.

There are other problems.  In the first film, Spock maroons the first officer on an entirely frozen planet as an act of discipline - and nobody in the entire crew seem to have a problem with this (remember the point about the entire crew seeming to have no idea what they were supposed to be doing?) Of course they mustn't have very strong feelings about it anyways, seeing that as soon as Kirk returns to the ship and this time it's Spock who is cast off, they all readily accept this once cadet-then suspended-then stowaway-then first officer-then marooned-now captain's full authority.  A "now captain" who had insisted on staying away from the enemy, knowing how overmatched the Enterprise was (think God versus Daddy long legs) whose plan has now changed to attacking headon - for no discernable reason whatsoever.   I won't spend any more time here because I know I am not the first to make many of these points, or many of the others that could be made.  Suffice it to say, the plots of these films are bad - very, very, very bad.

It really is too bad.  I was truly, honestly ready to like these films.  As I said, Star Trek is one of my favorite fictions to get lost in for a little bit, and even if it really is a little different from the way it used to be, a good Star Trek movie might just be a lot of fun.  The problem is that these aren't good Star Trek movies, or even good movies, by any stretch.

I hope the new Star Wars don't follow this example.

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