Re-boot to the Head
Bigger. Louder. Faster. These adjectives are the most deceptive in all of advertising, because they are almost as meaningless with context as without. The idea behind a “reboot” is to personify those three tantalizing words. In the case of the re-imagining of Star Trek, you’re being sold a brand name and nothing else. This new Star Trek follows the same idea as comedian Patton Oswalt’s bit about being confused why, if you liked Star Wars, you’d want to see the same characters as children. Well, the new Star Trek certainly is the veritable Muppet Babies of the Star Trek series. If you want to see young, toned actors, who vaguely resemble their older selves (mistake #1, if young Spock is an approximation, you can’t then cast Leonard Nimoy and give him a fairly large part as old Spock, allowing us to compare the two), you’re in for a treat. Paul Verhoeven mastered the art of mocking the cocky, pretty, empty types on display here when he made Starship Troopers. Unfortunately, Star Trek director J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias) brought his TV show experience with him, but not his irony.
Verhoeven knew that there was virtually no way to take these bland frat types seriously, and so the joke was on the characters in Starship Troopers, as we get to revel in their brutally graphic deaths. Abrams treats the enterprise with sincerity, well, as much sincerity as one can have while being reigned in by rigid fan expectations. The reboot notion rarely works for a number of reasons. First, the initial reboot movie is basically an apology for what got screwed up in previous editions, which already sets a confusing tone. Second, despite starting over, the filmmakers still have to follow stringent rules established by the source material, so not only is there little freedom, but the movie threatens to fall into the trap of either being totally faithful and uncreative, or, if there’s a spark of invention diverting from the formula, getting blasted by fans and critics alike who want their repetitive reassurance, and they want it now.
Saddled with an enormous budget and his television habits, J.J. Abrams delivers the most expensive and safe episode of TV ever produced. While Abrams’ limitations in the action arena were made quite clear in his directing of Mission Impossible III, in Star Trek, he lucked out, because the requirements were minimal. Abrams manages quite well in making $150 million look like an episode of Babylon 5. Fistfights are poorly edited, and when he wants to create excitement and tension, Abrams simply has the camera shake around a lot in close-up to give the appearance of frantic unease.
Now I’m going to have to make my full disclosure to be fair to the movie. I saw Star Trek in an IMAX theater, projected onto the ceiling and stretched out hundreds of feet wide. It was one of the worst theatrical viewing experiences I’ve ever had. I wasn’t bothered by the size of it, but simply the presentation. The image was cropped on the sides. It was also stretched. It was also out of focus. Whenever there was a shot that was in the daytime or had some bright light in it, I was distracted by the grooves in the ceiling, as if we were watching the movie on thousands of TV monitors at the same time. The grooves probably made sense when this planetarium was designed, but it is a woeful thing to look at. So bright that it takes 30 minutes of squinting before you get used to it, and with a jitteriness not helped by the fact that it looks like someone made a bootleg in the theater, but was too lazy to straighten the camera, and so everything is crooked. Keep in mind that this was a special screening which people had clearly waited hours to get into. So really, it isn’t fair for me to judge Star Trek‘s action sequences too harshly. I could hardly tell what was going on while we were supposed to be blown away by the intergalactic space fights and the only special effect that looked like it might be worth revisiting in a more pleasant environment was the first few seconds of the creation of a black hole twirling like a tornado in quicksand. Also there was that red monster that looked like a giant vagina (in the great tradition of Alien and Blade II), but it was dispatched far too quickly.
So what was I left with? Well the visual limitations meant that I had the ability to pay attention to the less flashy details, such as the distracting and meaningless cameos that pop up every few minutes. Actors such as Winona Ryder, Tyler Perry, and Simon Pegg (playing Scotty) have enough screen time that whatever interest we might have in their simple appearance dissipates, until you realize they’ve actually been reduced to being 8th billed in the cast, and not a bonus for the audience. I got to compare the special effects to the nearly visually identical Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, not a good omen when you look closer to a fully animated movie, than one involving actual people. I got to listen to dialogue like, “tell me something I don’t know,” or think about why they cast Anton Yelchin (Charlie Bartlett and the son on Huff) as a young Chekov, if he was going to play the part like the world’s worst Yakov Smirnov impressionist, “comically” mangling English with a thick Russian accent. I got to cringe as each famous character trait or phrase in the Star Trek lore was given an origin, always some groanworthy pun or sloppily written contrivance, as if the new actors were just kids wearing their parent’s clothing, placeholders for when they mature into the clichés we know in our hearts.
It’s funny because none of the Star Trek rules had to be obeyed, especially as time travel plays a rather major role in this film. There’s even a discussion of alternate realities, so we could easily get a different version of Kirk or Uhura, developing into something fresh and unexpected and it wouldn’t be cheating (well, with time travel plots, you’re always cheating in some way). Maybe the movie will play better at home and the flat look won’t be so bothersome. Or maybe, instead of fretting about not being able to judge the movie properly, I can take Scotty’s advice and focus my energy on whether or not they have sandwiches in the future.