Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lost in Space

A movie review? Sure, a movie review. It's my blog, and I hardly ever use it anymore, so what the hell.

The following is a review of the latest Star Trek movie. If you haven't seen the movie, STOP READING NOW.


OK, you've been warned. Here goes:

There are two ways to assess this latest contribution to the enduring uber-geek franchise known as Star Trek. First, we can ask whether it succeeds as pure cinema. The answer to that question, sadly, is an unqualified "no". Change the names, alter the uniforms and insignia, remove all references to the iconic 1960s original, and what would you have? You'd have a weak plot, garden-variety special effects, limited character development, and enough contrivances to embarrass George Lucas. The result would be, at best, a second-tier outer space Die Hard sequel, and, at worst, some interstellar Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle. Indeed, so much time gets spent Trekking up the newcomers, that even the action sequences seem rushed and unsatisfying.

The second question, then, assumes greater significance. Does this newest take on the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and crew work as Star Trek? Well, it certainly tries. Lord, does it try. The writers manage to wedge in every character, catch phrase, and in-joke from the original, to the point that when Bones McCoy gripes that "I'm a doctor, not a physicist", you wonder why nobody printed a check-off list so viewers could record each Old Trek cliché as it's delivered.

And speaking of check off, or in this case, Chekov, what the hell is he doing on the bridge? The seventeen-year old Rooskie navigator bounds annoyingly through the corridors, sounding as though he is still navigating, among other things, puberty. His presence is distracting and gratuitous, a gawky Wesley Crusher on steroids. Surely, Chekov's arrival could have awaited his high school graduation, even if that meant that there would be nobody on board to mangle a Russian accent until Episode 2 or 3.

In fact, the inexplicably burning need to gather the entire gang together results in one of the film's more irritating contrivances. Kirk, it seems, has snuck onto the Enterprise without permission, and the Human/Vulcan bromance around which the original series pivots gets off to a decidedly shaky start. Rather than throwing the annoying stowaway in the brig, as any logical commander would have done, Acting Captain Spock pops Jimbo into a shuttle craft and exiles him to the nearest Class M snow planet.

Let the staggering coincidences commence! Not only does this frigid world turn out to be the temporary home of Old Spock from the Future, it also features a neglected Star Base where Scotty just happens to be unhappily marking time, alone save for some mini-me pet Wookie. Sure, none of this offends on the scale of entire alien cultures organizing themselves as Nazi Germany or Gangland Chicago, but shouldn't we expect more from a 21st Century feaure film than we did from a bargain rack 1960s space opera?

(And while we're on the subject of contrivances, no, I haven't forgotten the unlikely, if convenient, placement of a Star Fleet base in Dogpatch, Iowa, just minutes from the farm where the Widow Kirk is struggling to raise troubled, young James Tiberius.)

But none of that, obnoxious though it may be, fully defines the failure of this movie to capture the zeitgeist of the original Star Trek. Instead, defeat, as it so often does, results from indecisiveness. The writers clearly want to retain the essence of the characters even as they update them for a younger and more demanding audience. The problem, however, is that Original Trek was, for better or worse, a non-transferable relic of its era. Regardless of their 23rd Century conceits, the men and women of Star Trek remained, even after a half dozen or so increasingly embarrassing sequels, unmistakable products of the 1960s. The flavor of that era, all the ambivalence about sex and race and militarism, the competing worlds of Cape Canaveral and Haight-Ashbury, the fundamental debates about freedom and justice, informed and indelibly shaped the series and its characters.

Take, for example, James T. Kirk. As portrayed (too often broadly) by William Shatner, Old Kirk offered a simmering stew of contradictions, on the one hand romantic peacemaker, on the other horn-dog cowboy, part MLK and part LBJ. New Kirk, however, perhaps because of his fatherless background, but more likely because of his Gen Y orientation, is all horn-dog cowboy. Old Kirk would never have opened fire on a helpless spacecraft, no matter how much he loathed its occupants. Old Kirk had moments of crippling self doubt, even if he rarely expressed them on the bridge. New Kirk, by contrast, never budges from his one-note cockiness and a level of self-assurance that would have daunted even George W. Bush in his frat-boy-in-full "Mission Accomplished" phase.

The duality of Spock, of course, is written into his DNA, though the mixed race metaphor obviously meant something a bit more profound in the age of Selma and Birmingham than it does in the era of Barack Obama. The idea that a younger Spock would find it periodically difficult to harness his emotions seems in keeping with the character. That he would be knocking boots with Lt. Uhura does not. Even a 20-something Spock would have understood that it's illogical to cavort with a subordinate.

In the end, Paramount's latest milking of their venerable cash cow fails its own test of duality. The writers want it both ways. They intend to erase the entire history of the original five-year voyage of the U.S.S. Enterprise, which they do, thanks to time travel, a crazy Romulan, and the galaxy's most astonishingly equipped mining vessel. But they also wish to recapture the core relationships and tensions that characterized the old show. They seem, from beginning to end, unaware that they cannot do both. And, as any fan of the 1960s Star Trek could have told them, unresolved duality rarely leads to anything good.