Sunday, 17 May 2009

Star Trek: WTF

Couldn't think of a punnier title I'm afraid, but if you can, drop me a comment.

I have been trying to think of a post to do on the expenses thing, but frankly it's just too depressing. Although Douglas Hogg's moat cleaning and Eric Pickles' 'the thing about Parliament is, you have to turn up on time' have a black comedic value far beyond even Blears' 'look at my wodge of money, proles!' moment.

So instead, something which has been headfucking me for about a week now - the new Star Trek movie, and how reviewing it for the audience in my head has been a really hard task.

Two warnings:

To start with, the whole film is really fucking weird. Just odd. It's being billed as a 'reboot' movie, presumably because 're-magining' is soo Battlestar Galactica. So it's supposed to kick off a new slew of entries into the franchise presumably.

That's fine, as far as it goes, and certainly when I came out of the flicks I felt I had a good understanding of the new ground rules (mainly: none of the stuff from the last 40 years has happened any more, apart from presumably the late, unlamented, Enterprise thing, so pretty much anything goes; but there's probably enough of the future left intact for some cameos and nudge-nudge in-jokes over the next however many movies).

This leaves open the question of what kind of movie it is though. As in, what's the genre here? Generally, Star Trek movies have known their place. Certainly with the TNG crew they've felt like extended episodes rather than cinematic experiences, with that oddly televisual feel to the fairly cheap sets (First Contact is definitely the one that suffers the least from this, but check out the exterior scenes on the deflector dish and you'll still be able to see what I mean). Star Trek sets out to be more cinematic. Unfortunately I think it may be the cinema of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystle Skull. By which I mean that the elements of a blockbuster romp are there but no one has any clue why it's been made.

For a start, there's the plot. Or at least, there should be. What there actually is seems to consist of yet another temporal anomaly plot-device, and some stuff. That stuff seems to be largely random, although it does allow a Star Trek IV reference to San Francisco. The Romulans are back, for some reason or another - something to do with the first ship to be powered by demented bluebottles, and a mining ship that looks like a collection of rusty razor blades and Meccano, no doubt for some really good space reason. Weirdly the baddie reminded me less of Khan and more of Frank Sobotka from The Wire. As far as I can work out, the whole thing seems to exist solely to set up a convenient way to explain away whatever its sequels get up to.

The characters were also very odd to watch. None of them were bad, but they were all doing impressions of people we know very well. I won't say they were like a tribute act - it's more like going to the pub to meet a friend and finding James van der Beek there claiming to be him and reminding you of that time you both went arse over tit down Dog Leap Stairs.

The attempt to recreate the spirit of the original series - with the familiar slightly overdone humour between Kirk, Spock and McCoy - clashes so oddly with the high-end blockbuster special effects that for me it added yet another disconcerting element to it, as though it were to-ing and fro-ing between Saving Private Ryan and Galaxy Quest.

Finally, the politics. It's a difficult film to assess, as it often is with Star Trek, pushing as it always does the strange line between some kind of apparently socialist economics and a liberal hegemonic view of legalistic national/planetary power structures. There's some attempt to equate Star Fleet with a UN task force, but as others have pointed out, it's a very weapon-heavy task force if so. A UN with the US military at its disposal, rather than the underpaid 3rd-world soldiers that it usually relies on. So it's at once an imperialist and notionally multilateral world view (interestingly the loss of Vulcan, which has always been the underpinning other tribune of the Federation, implies a newly unipolar Federation). Then there's the odd choice of a suicide-bomber hero in the first few minutes of the film. I don't want to stretch a 9/11 analogy in too strongly here - I don't quite see how an American single-handedly flying a ship into the belly of the beast resonates strongly with the American popular narrative of that event. It does however fit strongly with the more general narrative of American Exceptionalism, the sort of thing the neocons are so keen on. So keeping the franchise's liberal credentials would be a bit of a stretch here, if the film were particularly interested in politics. Luckily it focuses almost wholly on the Kirk/Spock dynamic, making it a personal story in which galactic politics are are a sketchily painted canvas backdrop to make the sets seem somewhat larger than they really are. Much like the saving-the-world bobbins that gets put in towards the end.

In short: This film was one of the weirdest experiences I have had with a mainstream blockbuster release. I don't even know if it was enjoyable or not. I don't think it was a bad film exactly, but I'm really not sure if I could say why.


ibs said...

Nice review. I feel much the same about it. I thought I was gonna hate it, but I guess the (Spoiler!) alternative universe thing was a get out clause for all the hardcore fans to pretend like it all just never happened. It was, as you say, a lot like the other ST movies - they all seem to have these baddies with unconvincing motivation, all kind of second division Khans, though not First Contact, and I dug the interaction between Picard and Shinzon in the last one. They're sooo different from the series, though (well, not Enterprise). You couldn't really imagine a DS9 movie.

There were two things that really shitted me, though. Firstly: the Nokia product placement. That was a fucking outrage that had me shaking my fist at the screen. Even my apolitical mate I talked to said that was "un Star Trek". JJ should be strung up for that. That's heresy. It's so far away from the ideals of TNG and especially DS9 that it's not funny. I mean if it was a Ferengi car he was driving, ok, but...

The bigger thing that bugged me about it, or left me feeling funny inside, was the whole notion that ST *needs* a re-boot. I find it kinda insulting this idea that ST is a charity case that needs some big-shot producer to save it from obscurity. Even if it's not commercially viable no more, leave it for the geeks and the slash fictions authors, I say.

Hey and this a cool blog. I'm glad I found it.

Christie Malry said...

Thank you kindly - good call on the Nokia thing. It really pissed me off too, but I left it out of the rant on the grounds that I couldn't think of anything witty to say about it...

I know what you mean about the idea that the franchise needs a reboot, and I'm certainly not clear that the bloke who brought us the single most ponderous TV show of recent years is the bloke to do it. I was actually assuming that the whole franchise was going to be quietly mothballed after the failur of Enterprise and Nemesis.

Nevertheless it is the prevailing assumption of most reviewers that it's a disappointing series. And certainly it has had its duff ones. I think Nemesis only looked halfway decent because of the awfulness of Insurrection. That and Data finally copping it. I've been waiting for that since about 1992.

In fact my only real regret from the demise of the TNG's franchise is that they didn't bring Wesley back, then stab him repeatedly in the eyes with a rusty penknife whilst going through a galactic thesaurus to find all the possible synonyms for the word 'twunt' that the alpha quadrant can muster and shouting them in his gore-bespattered ears.