Sunday, May 17, 2009

Star Trek

So I saw Star Trek. At least I think I saw Star Trek. That was the title of the movie, and the characters all had the right names -Kirk, Bones, Spock, Uhura, Sulu. Lots of phasers and photon torpedoes. But I sure don't remember having this much fun on the Enterprise before.

I can't remember the last Star Trek movie that I saw. I can't even remember the last time I saw one of the TV shows. I have the sense that the movies were losing steam, creatively. And financially.

I have, however, spent some time recently watching clips of Galaxy Quest on YouTube. I love Galaxy Quest. They nailed something in that movie. There are three groups in the movie, all with completely different relationships to the TV show. The actors who were in the show are mostly burned out, utterly sick and tired of it. The Thermians, the aliens who watched the "historical documents," are the exact opposite: they treat the show as the gospel truth, and believe every word of it so faithfully that they have recreated the ship. The teenage fanboys straddle the line between truth and fiction; they know it's only a show, but they really, really want to believe in it. The actors have never taken it seriously beyond their paychecks; the Thermians have taken it seriously enough that the very survival of their civilization depends on it. The fanboys are the kind of geeky teenage males who are inclined to take it just a wee bit too seriously.

But part of the accidental genius of the original Star Trek is that it's almost impossible to take it too seriously. Tribbles? Please. The other part of the accidental genius of the original is that there is stuff within it that does deserve to be taken seriously. Relations with other races/cultures, emotion vs. logic - good stuff.

By not taking it too seriously, we give ourselves permission to go ahead and take it seriously, after all. This is what Trekkers/Trekkies (I have no idea what the difference is) do: by playing up the camp factor, they let the world know that they know it's a joke, and that they're in on it. But then they have their own joke, which is that they manage to find meaning in it.

J.J. Abrams has pulled off a variation of this trick in this movie, except that he almost skipped the "not taking it seriously" part. First of all, he's made a damn good movie. There's no other way to say it. It's just a damn good movie. It's got a great blend of humor and action. The casting is just about perfect. Simon Pegg as Scotty? Genius. Tyler Perry as the head of Starfleet Academy? Points for that little surprise. Winona Ryder as Spock's mother? OK, that one was a little weird.

But Abrams nails the "not taking it seriously"/"taking it too seriously" tension perfectly within the movie. Chris Pine as James Tiberius Kirk starts out as a rebel who doesn't want to even think about joining a cause. Spock, of course, takes everything as seriously as possible. Oil and water, fire and ice, Vulcan/human, reason/emotion, Newtonian/Einsteinian physics, pick a dichotomy. Except male/female. Not a lot of that.

The one thing Kirk and Spock have in common is that they both love challenges. Abrams - thanks be to the Federation and ILM - has the technical and artistic chops to throw them both a fair number of challenges, personal, political, and, of course, military. And throw them he does.

Abrams' great challenge was to pay homage to the mythology/history/cultural phenomenon that is Star Trek, while creating yet another version that is and is not a mirror image of the very first series. He references the references we all know without making them feel like blatant references. When Bones yells "Damnit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a physicist!" he says it because it's true - he's a doctor, not a physicist, and that is a highly relevant piece of information at that particular moment in time, and he needs to make it very clear. Abrams has to make us remember and forget the original series at the same time.

He has one spectacular advantage in this regard: this particular dichotomy lies at the heart of the Star Trek phenomenon. There have already been several reimaginings of the franchise within Paramount, the studio, and umpteen zillion outside of it. Star Trek has already mutated a thousand times, with budgets in the millions of dollars and the tens of dollars. It just hasn't been done with a budget in the very high tens of millions of dollars.

I'm waxing philosophical partially because this is one thing Abrams does not do much of in this movie. Mostly because he doesn't really have to. Spock is half human and half Vulcan - he struggles with this dichotomy. Yes, we know. The Enterprise is on a peacekeeping mission, armed to the teeth. Force/diplomacy, when to use each. Yeah, got it. Shields up already, what's taking so long to fire the photon torpedoes? Oh, there they go. And there they go again. I'll shut up now and try to hold on. Pacing is not a problem in this movie - it's about the fastest two hours I can remember. Kirk is boldly going wherever his hormones lead him. And thank you, Zoe Saldana, for making Uhura hot AND smart. Remember what Jean-Luc Godard said are the only two things you need to make a movie? A girl and a gun. A little light on the girls, but my oh my do we have guns. Not set on stun all that often, what with the fate of billions of people at stake. Just for fun, what say we start with ship-level drama, and then get to grandiose and epic scale as soon as we can. Oh, wait, we're already there.

At the end of Galaxy Quest, the Thermians have shown the actors that the show was worthwhile after all; "Never give up, never surrender!" really was something to believe in. J.J. Abrams has done the same. He has accomplished the rather impressive feat of convincing a fair segment of the population that Star Trek is not only still worth taking seriously, it was worth taking seriously in the first place. See also: Stewart, Patrick.

Then Abrams delivers a great gift to all the Trekkies/Trekkers/Trekizoids/Trekkyboppers out there: not just a great Star Trek movie, not just a great movie, period, but the best possible excuse to take Kirk and Bones and Spock and Klingons as seriously as they want to, logical or illogical as that may be.

And then he delivers to them (and us) an even greater gift: he makes it all cooler than it ever was. Beam me up, Scotty, there's a lot of intelligent life around here. Warp factor ten, Mr. Sulu, we need a sequel.

No comments: