Wednesday, April 22, 2009
TO BOLDLY GO... WHERE I HAVEN'T BEEN IN SEVERAL YEARS, AT LEAST
In anticipation of J.J. Abrams' upcoming STAR TREK rejiggering, I thought I'd go back and give the entire run of original series movies one more spin on the old DVD player before the new film comes along with it's' fancy new looks and bedazzles the old ones right into quaint antiquity.
I'm sure I'm going to love the new take. Here's why. STAR TREK has been a part of my collective pop-consciousness for as long as STAR WARS has, and, while STAR TREK has never had such a drastic derailment leveled against it as did Lucas' tenaciously-gripped franchise with THE PHANTOM MENACE, STAR TREK has always existed in a rather sterile and tepid zone of enjoyment -- a "neutral zone" if you will. STAR WARS always had cool aliens and fantastic space battles, while STAR TREK had... phasers that stun, effortless teleporters, and aliens with odd foreheads or weird noses. And don't get me started on which franchise had the best toys -- I don't think I've ever owned a Star Trek action figure! I enjoy a lot of the philosophy and thoughtfulness of the Trek franchises, but it always seemed a bit stale. Not that TREK's qualities are bad -- I just always wanted more. One thing that I consistently enjoyed throughout the original series and most of the films was the interplay and relationships between Kirk, Spock and Bones. I won't go into the details of what made their relationships special, but I'll just say that STAR WARS never seemed to nail down quite as interesting a handle on character dynamics (there were hints of it with the Luke, Leia, Han trio, but it changed drastically from film to film).
There is, of course, a lot more of TREK to go around than there is WARS (though Lucas seems hellbent on catching up, mostly with CLONE WARS retreading), with many TV spinoffs and a few more theatrical outings. My favorite of the shows has to be STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. It came along at that crucial middle/high school phase of my life and really captured my attention with its deft embracing of the original show's purpose and breaking of new ground. It still came off as too stiff, at times, and I don't think I'll ever like the TNG Starfleet uniforms, but you can't beat things like the introduction of the Borg and Data's quest to be more human. Anyway, multiple other spinoffs followed until the collective fanbase seemed to have had enough of Trek.
So, I came along at just the right time to be able to see all the STAR TREK movies during their theatrical release, and this one in particular was viewed multiple times thanks to my grandparents having HBO during my summer stays with them. I remember the summer following STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE's release (and doesn't that seem quaint and old-fashioned now: having the phrase "motion picture" in the actual title of the film?) it seems like I watched TREK's initial theatrical outing (or pieces of it) just about every day for a month! Id wake up early, turn on the TV, and there was TREK again (or CLASH OF THE TITANS)! I haven't watched the entire movie in one sitting for many years and it certainly isn't as spooky and enthralling as it seemed to me at the tender age of 5, which is odd given the slow pace and lack of action -- try sitting a modern kid in front of this flick and count on one hand the number of minutes before they get antsy and throw in the towel!
The thing that strikes me immediately about this movie is how different it feels from the only type of TREK we were used to upon it's release: the original TV series. I've heard tales of the massive spending surrounding this movie, and it certainly shows -- the sets are all large-scale and beefed-up and the effects and miniature work is still quite outstanding. They were obviously trying to milk every penny and were proud of their work, as evidenced by the long, lingering "beauty passes" of the new Enterprise and the colossal, eerie V'Ger ship. It's interesting that they chose to strip the Starfleet uniforms of the traditional primary color palette that was featured in the original series. I appreciate the additional detailing of the uniforms to the point where they look more like ship crew outfits than stage play shirts and slacks, but the leeching of color seems to do more harm than good -- not only is the movie long and slow, but the interior shots are sometimes maddeningly monochromatic in comparison to the TV series. I'm also reminded that the new opening theme score for this new theatrical Trek is exactly the same score that was later used as the theme for the STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION tv series -- seems like they should have fiddled with the theme at least a bit to move it into the future with TNG instead of immediately recalling so blatantly and exactly from whence they came.
Old and Colorful...
New and drab...
I had forgotten that legendary Sci-Fi master Isaac Aasimov lent his skills as a consultant (which could mean anything), and may have enhanced the hard sf plotting, but the absolute dearth of action really hurts this film overall. I mean, there's not a single fistfight or starship battle to be found in the entire film! No one even so much as fingers their phaser, and the only time the Enterprise fires off a shot is to blast a pesky asteroid that is in their path within a wormhole tunnel! This lack of action combined with the film's long running time makes for a somewhat tedious and tepid journey, despite the often fantastic and beautiful images of the V'Ger ship and it's surrounding energy cloud.
As an aside, it's amusing how many times Dr. McCoy pops back and forth from the bridge to the infirmary during the course of the Enterprise's mission. I guess since McCoy serves more as Kirk's conscience than an actual doctor (and the fact that there isn't much "doctory" stuff to do), he's better served hovering over Kirk's shoulder the entire time. McCoy often has to get shoehorned into the action so he can play off of Spock and Kirk, when he should ideally just be chilling out in the infirmary. He seems to get away with a lot more than a traditional Starfleet doctor would given his standing with Kirk. I can't imagine the ship's doctor on any other vessel being so free to come and go from the bridge as McCoy.
Might as well be wearing red shirts...
Two new "crewmates" are introduced in this movie, Cmdr Decker and Ilia, though they seem to be merely glorified redshirts inserted into the storyline to provide important sacrifices/deaths where none of the permanent cast could be spared. The end result, however, is that none of the regular crew ends up doing anything particularly heroic or necessary, and the only one that even seems to undergo any sort of change is Spock, though it's a step backwards for his character (in Vulcan terms). Kirk actually manages to act somewhat of a twit, competing with and bullying Decker so he can resume command of his precious ship. It seems hard to believe this guy has actually made Admiral.
One thing that hampered most of the ST movie series was the ages of the actors playing the crew. By the time the 6th movie rolled around, most of them were positively ancient, and no one wants to see a cool sci-fi movie where the heroes are all over the age of 60. Even in this first outing, it's apparent that many of them are already beginning to show advanced signs of aging with their drooping features, graying (or balding) hair, and rounding physiques. They've already begun to lose that young adult slickness they had in the TV series, and, as the film series progresses, it becomes harder to believe these people are actually still holding the same positions on the same ship that they held 20 years ago.
So, the movie ends with the sacrifice of the two new cast members, who end up merging into a new life form... I guess. It's a good thing Decker and Ilia had a previous hot and heavy relationship so we could get rid of them both in one fell swoop as Ilia (who has been taken over by V'Ger) needs to merge with her "creator" (of whom Decker is a willing and able representative), and the two get naked and "merge" into a blizzard of super-intelligent life... or something. While the movie was completely actionless (I still can't believe a phaser doesn't even get brandished threateningly by anyone), it did have some thoughtful elements in the plot, and I do like the notion of a super-rational entity realizing that rationality is not the be-all and end-all of existence as it strives to search for a creator and a purpose to life (take that, Rationistas!) -- a lesson that I think resonates well with even Spock acknowledging that there is a sense of fulfillment and necessity in the belief in the existence of "something more" than what ration dictates.
This film was largely successful at the box office upon it's release, probably due to the sheer novelty of a STAR TREK theatrical feature hot on the heels of STAR WARS, but it was pretty much a flop with critics who derided it for its plodding pace and lack of action. I was struck upon this repeated viewing with just what a wrongheaded misstep this movie was in its sheer unfriendliness to viewers who may be new to TREK. It seems to never even be considered that folks watching this movie might be unfamiliar with the characters or the staples of TREK, especially when so many common aspects of the TV show are neglected altogether. I've already gone on long enough, so I won't go into detail with a checklist of what went wrong, but I would love to watch this with someone who has no familiarity with TREK and witness their reaction and response to it. I'll probably end up showing this to my daughter one day and see how long it takes her to call it quits.
POP-METER RATING: 5/10
Next up... STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAAAAAAAN!!