Saturday, May 9, 2009

"Star Trek" and the Re-birthing of a Franchise

Star Trek
Director: J.J. Abrams

* * * 1/2 / * * * *

I'll get my own elephant-in-the-room out of the way: I am not, nor have I ever been, a Star Trek fan.  I've watched multiple episodes from every incarnation and have failed to be compelled.  At the same time, I also acknowledge its influence and mythical stature in 20th century television and popular culture as a whole.  Part of that understanding comes from me being taught by Ina Rae Hark, a frequent and respected sci-fi publisher who recently penned the BFI book on Star Trek.  So while "I took a course on it in college" may not always be the best defense, it will have to work here.

From this new re-boot's opening moments, director J.J. Abrams asserts his stance - intensified continuity editing, balanced and surprisingly graceful visual effects, bombastic music, surprisingly effective sound edits, and a pace that jettisons his plot at warp speed while never sacrificing character conflict and melodrama.  Yes, this is an "origins" story, an idea that's become so pervasive in all franchises it's even in their titles (witness "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"), and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzmann simultaneously acknowledge the debt they owe to Rodenberry's original while freely striking their own path.

In their hands, Kirk (Chris Pine) is an aggressive youth lacking direction while lacking a father.  Spock (Zachary Quinto) constantly negotiates his Vulcan and human identities, struggling to bridge the cultural gap between the two and understand his own emotions, while the rest of the crew gently falls into place with subtle jabs at their original counterparts.  Sci-Fi's two favorite men of fan fiction do not necessarily strike a gay subtext here; their story is one of self-discovery.  The whole film is composed of a search for identity, one that extends into its villain (Eric Bana, deliciously one-note), and by turn the film itself.  The lack of identity becomes a flaw for each character, and the flaws this lack breeds become exacerbated over the course of the film, so that only by recognizing them are characters allowed to gain strength and success.

Abrams' production is undeniably gorgeous.  Beyond the uniformly spectacular visual effects, nearly flawless sound mixing, and handsome set design, the film boasts surprising moments of technical prowess with complex tracking shots through the corridors of the Enterprise, sharp pans across the control deck, and editing that alternately emphasizes unity and disparity among the crew.  These relationships are enhanced through blocking, rack focusing, and Dutch tilts that change the geometry of character position to reflect emotional reversals.

It's been suggested that part of Star Trek's appeal is its ability to imagine a future largely devoid of wide-spread conflict, where different races and species exist in harmony on a ship whose mission is to give humanitarian aid throughout multiple planets and societies.  While this utopian ideal seemed ripe for the 60s, firmly positioning the US (or at least, a sci-fi alternative to our brand of "humanitarian democracy") as harbingers of peace and salvation - while still kicking butt and taking our shirts off.  In 2009, the film revels in contradictions and hypocrisies, exposing melodramatic emotions and psychological conflict, ultimately restoring hope while questioning its longevity.

We again see in Star Trek the unification of all we hope for, but we come to understand its fragility.  The deep companionship, the against-all-odds attitude is retained, but somehow enhanced through the fleeting explorations of its discharges.  What helps significantly is Abrams' uniform sense of exhilarating exploration.  He feels like a frequent navigator to this world, while reveling in the chance to be a part of it.  His wide-eyed amazement at the ship and its crew boosts his film.

As a blockbuster, which is how Trek will ultimately be judged by executives and most audiences (as it does seem to herald the "real" start of summer after Wolverine's high-money-low-interest reception), the film incites a myriad of blurbs: action-packed, fun, high-octane, thrilling, majestic, a sensual overload, fantastic ... all interchangeable, take your pick.  While the film's tagline foolishly suggests "this ain't your daddy's Star Trek," it actually holds true.  What was once viewed as alienating and "geeky" now seems hip and flashy, able to breach demographics and use the popular common lore of Star Trek as a building block for its own dynasty.

Any faults aimed at the film come only at its own occasionally over-zealous enthusiasm - it has a tendency to sometimes feel routine and over-cooked, and some scenes in the first act feel too explicitly geared at expressing an origins story and laying unnecessary psychological groundwork.  And while I may personally have minor qualms with the editing (a few too many close-ups for my taste during the action), I have nothing but admiration with the sincere solidity this film has been crafted with.

For fans, of which I must again stress I am traditionally not, the question that will surely be raised is, does this do Rodenberry's vision justice?  It's a question I'm unfit to answer, but I will anyway.  Yes.  It does.  It's respectful and sincere while purposeful and entertaining.  It does, however, largely forego philosophical exploration for grandiose space opera.  The intersection of these two thematic ideas is not wholly embedded within the film.  While perhaps an intellectual detriment that only increases the film's position as blockbuster entertainment instead of broad cultural commentary, this again furthers an argument for Star Trek as a vessel to explore other dimensions of its reality.

There's no sense comparing this film to anything else in Star Trek lore.  Any way you slice it, this is solid filmmaking, brought to life with surprising passion, larger-than-life action, and rounded by surprisingly sturdy tangents into melodrama that stimulates without feeling overbearing.  Were I to bring up my real sci-fi devotion (and I might as well), Star Wars, I would have to freely acknowledge George Lucas's inability to reconcile his desire to utilize 21st century special effects with his sappy, wooden dialogue and false environments.  In those films, he merely filled in holes to surprisingly drab effect.  In Abrams' fantasies of the Enterprise, holes are only magnified and logic becomes something to fear.  The effects (as they should) support the story line, which never gets bogged down in repetition or stalled in weepy emotions.

Science fiction fans have nothing to fear.  Maybe for the first time in...ever, admitting to being a Star Trek fan will be a "cool" thing (all the kids are doing it!).  It's rare to find a film so cognizant of the debt it owes to its predecessors while gradually becoming its own piece.  By the time the Enterprise gets its weapons blasting at full force, it's genre nirvana.

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